Author Archives: uwpress

35 Years of Anthropological Controversy

Our guest blogger is Peter Hempenstall. His new book, Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology, is now available.

When I tell people the title of my book, half of them (those who are not anthropologists or historians of the Pacific region) puzzle over the name: who on earth was Derek Freeman? If I mention Margaret Mead, some suddenly nod vigorously. Wasn’t there some controversy thirty years ago when Mead’s iconic status was suddenly thrown into dispute? Yes, I say, that’s where Derek Freeman comes in.

Freeman in his later years

In January 1983 Harvard University Press published a book which sparked the longest, most acrimonious controversy in the history of cultural anthropology during the twentieth century. The book was Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, which was a refutation of Margaret Mead’s little study from the 1920s, Coming of Age in Samoa. Mead’s book had exercised a powerful, energizing influence on American social sciences and culture with its message of how the cultural environment shaped the way humans developed through adolescence. Freeman’s book, and his subsequent battles to defend a portrait of Samoa that was diametrically opposed to Mead’s, provoked tremors across anthropology, particularly in the United States, where Freeman was vilified and dismissed as a dangerous heretic.

Freeman in 1951 standing on an Iban longhouse platform in Borneo

The disruptive figure of Derek Freeman is the subject of Truth’s Fool. Freeman was a New Zealand anthropologist, a mountaineer, who had worked among the head hunting Iban of Borneo, had spent years among Samoans studying their culture, was given a respected chiefly title in that hierarchical society, and spoke fluent Samoan. The repudiation of Mead’s arguments, and the statements that Freeman made in support of a new kind of anthropology that took biological drivers seriously in the evolution of human cultures, threw up dangerous questions about the nature of human being. For American scholars in the Reagan years, Freeman seemed to invoke the threat of racial theories once more invading the social sciences.

Freeman working at home in a woolly hat, the figure of eccentricity

The last two decades of the twentieth century were full of rancorous dispute that had the character of rolling warfare between Freeman and American cultural anthropologists. Freeman spent the last thirty years of his life, until his death in 2001, defending his arguments in a vain attempt to convince his adversaries about Mead and to herald a new anthropology. Echoes of the confrontations find their way into the literature today, and Freeman’s name still has the power to arouse emotion.

The Mead debates and their fallout are at the center of Truth’s Fool. It lays out the labyrinthine twists and turns of arguments that raged from the 1980s into the new century. But it also deals with the second part of Freeman’s Mead campaign, his arguments about the evolution of humans as higher primates, and the relation between their genetically predisposed behavior and the creation of their cultures. Freeman’s refutation of Mead was originally intended as the prelude to a future anthropology, in which his colleagues would learn from neuroscientists’ discoveries about brain functions and apply them to the study of behavior in culture.

And then there is the biography of Freeman himself, which I argue cannot be ignored or underplayed in understanding this alleged antipodean “monster.” Freeman’s reputation is that of a brilliantly cantankerous man, unforgiving in debate, and carrying a career-long vendetta against Margaret Mead. Truth’s Fool examines these claims closely and seeks to peel back the gargoyle features with which he has been endowed by his adversaries. Who was Derek Freeman as a person? How is he to be defined beyond the cult of hostility and the regular ritual denunciations that seem to have grown around him? And what does all this say about anthropology itself and its manner of dealing with dissenters in its midst? I hope Truth’s Fool enlarges the narrow world in which anthropologists have confined Freeman and introduces a three dimensional historical figure of significance, rather than the cartoon-cutout figure he has become for many.

Peter Hempenstall is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a conjoint professor of history at the University of Newcastle in Australia. His many books include Pacific Islanders under German Rule and the biographies The Meddlesome Priest and The Lost Man: Wilhelm Solf in German History (coauthored with Paula Tanaka Mochida).

Publishers’s note: The University of Wisconsin Press has published many books on the history of anthropology, including another book on the Mead-Freeman controversy, The Trashing of Margaret Mead. You can also browse our 12-volume History of Anthropology series.

New Books, December 2017

December 12, 2017
Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp
Sergio Bitar

“A compelling account, a best seller in Chile … and an important contribution to the country’s understanding of itself.”
Foreign Affairs

“Democracy is fragile, and only fully appreciated when it is lost. Sergio Bitar, now one of the most prominent political leaders in Chile, recounts the story of the 1973 military coup and his imprisonment in a direct, unsentimental style that sharply highlights the dramatic events he narrates.”
—Isabel Allende Llona

Critical Human Rights Series
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

December 19, 2017
Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology
Peter Hempenstall

Truth’s Fool documents an intellectual journey that was much larger and more encompassing than Freeman’s criticism of Mead’s work. It peels back the prickly layers to reveal the man in all his complexity. Framing this story within anthropology’s development in Britain and America, Peter Hempenstall recounts Freeman’s mission to turn the discipline from its cultural-determinist leanings toward a view of human culture underpinned by biological and behavioral drivers. Truth’s Foolengages the intellectual questions at the center of the Mead–Freeman debate and illuminates the dark spaces of personal, professional, and even national rivalries.

“A perceptive intellectual biography of Freeman’s evolving character, enthusiasms, and academic career that led to his fateful pursuit of Margaret Mead.”
—Lamont Lindstrom,author of Knowledge and Power in a South Pacific Society

 

AIDS Readings

December 1 is World AIDS Day. HIV/AIDS has wrought enormous suffering worldwide and caused more than 35 million deaths. The nine books that follow are testimony to that devastation.

Anne-christine d’Adesky
A personal history of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites. Anne-christine d’Adesky remembers “the poxed generation” of AIDS—their lives, their battles, and their determination to find love and make art in the heartbreaking years before lifesaving protease drugs arrived.
“Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.” —Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave
Kenny Fries
Kenny Fries embarks on a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, a society historically hostile to difference. When he is diagnosed as HIV positive, all his assumptions about Japan, the body, and mortality are shaken, and he must find a way to reenter life on new terms.
“Fries writes out of the pure hot emergency of a mortal being trying to keep himself alive. So much is at stake here—health, affection, culture, trauma, language—but its greatest surprise is what thrives in the midst of suffering. A beautiful book.”—Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door
David Caron
The deluge of metaphors triggered in 1981 in France by the first public reports of what would turn out to be the AIDS epidemic spread with far greater speed and efficiency than the virus itself.
“Literary and cultural analysis come together here as Caron casts brilliant light on the disastrously inadequate public response to the AIDS pandemic in France. . . . He shows how literature supplied the communitarian voice that would otherwise have been lacking.”—Ross Chambers, author of Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author
David Gere
“Anyone interested in dance or in gay culture or in art and politics should, as I did, find this a fascinating book, impossible to put down.”—Sally Banes, editor of Reinventing Dance in the 1960s
Edited by Edmund White
In Cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS
“A poignant reminder of the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on the arts.”—Library Journal
“A searing, and often bitingly funny collection of personal essays by almost two dozen writers—John Berendt, Brad Gooch, Allan Gurganus, and Sarah Schulman among them—Loss within Loss remembers over twenty creative artists lost to AIDS.”— The Advocate
Severino J. Albuquerque
Co-winner of the 2004 Roberto Reis BRASA Book Award
 “Albuquerque’s work . . . provides an archaeology of theatrical representations of homosexuality in Brazil, an alternative history of Brazilian theater from the margins, a critical analysis of canonical and non-canonical plays infused with the insights of feminist and queer theory, as well as a history of the representation of AIDS in Brazilian culture.”—Fernando Arenas, University of Minnesota
Michael Schiavi
The biography of gay-rights giant Vito Russo, the man who wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, commonly regarded as the foundational text of gay and lesbian film studies. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
G. Thomas Couser    Foreword by Nancy Mairs
A provocative look at writing by and about people with illness or disability—in particular HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, deafness, and paralysis—who challenge the stigmas attached to their conditions by telling their lives in their own ways and on their own terms.
Lesléa Newman
“Although pain plays a part in this volume, many of the tales celebrate with warmth and good humor the courageous maintenance of the Jewish tradition in radical relationships. . . . Contemporary characters confront both timely issues, like AIDS, and eternal ones, such as a lovers’ quarrel or a mother-daughter misunderstanding.”—Publishers Weekly

Six Turkish Filmmakers

Today we have the pleasure to announce the publication of Six Turkish Filmmakers by Laurence Raw, our guest blogger. The book is published in the series Wisconsin Film Studies edited by Patrick McGilligan.  

I have lived in Turkey since 1989, so it might seem obvious that I’ve become interested in Turkish film. Or perhaps not: I work in English-language education, communicating in English with trainee teachers and writing about the problems of dealing with students in the classroom.

Watching Turkish films has been a way of distancing myself from work, not only because of the films’ locations, but because of their ideas. I did not expect that these films would be so different from American or British films, despite a similarity of plots.

Consider the filming style, for example. Derviş Zaim photographs many of his protagonists against the background of a vast landscape or the Bosphorus, conveying a sense of human insignificance. He reminds us that humanity is part of that landscape; people return to the earth once they have died.

Semih Kaplanoğlu alerts us to the regular change of seasons that pass inexorably by, regardless of humanity. Sometimes survival is simply a matter of acknowledging those changes and adapting one’s life around them.

Yet these films do not meditate on nature in a vacuum. They are

Semih Kaplanoğlu

often highly preoccupied with what might be described as the contemporary disease, especially in contemporary Turkey—the vogue for building apartments with little concern for their residents. Semih Kaplanoğlu depicts İstanbul as overrun with apartment blocks placed tightly together. It’s hardly surprising that his characters want to return to the relative peace of the country. Yet the countryside can be equally unforgiving, as in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, where the snow-laden hills offer little in the way of shelter.

Perhaps the only way to survive is to make the best of what we have and enjoy it, for who knows what will be around the corner?

Winter Sleep (director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Many of the Turkish films I’ve watched are quest narratives, where the central characters seek something or someone from their past, or perhaps shaping their future. The directors do not look upon this quest with a great deal of optimism. Invariably, the quests end up not working at all, or present further problems that the characters find difficult to resolve. Better to stick to the status quo, these films seem to say; it might not be much, but it provides the characters with a degree of security.

The films are set in both the present and the past. Zaim’s Cenetti Beklerken (Waiting for Heaven) is set in Ottoman Turkey with a distinct look at the present in its analysis of the ancient art of calligraphy. Zaim takes up the same theme in Nokta (Dot). Twentieth-century perspectives on local history are offered in Tolga Örnek’s Gallipoli and Cars of the Revolution, which respectively look at the lasting memory of the Turkey’s War of Independence and the first car produced by Turks for Turks. Zeki Demirkubuz’s Kısmanmak considers the effect of jealousy in the pre-1945 Black Sea region.

Zeki Demirkubuz

The relationship between past, present, and future is highly significant in these Turkish films, as their auteurs advance a view of the world as a living continuum in which past, present, and future affect each other. Characters perceive one long passage of time that will persist after they have passed away. They believe they can change the world, but only temporarily; life in the world will carry on as if nothing had happened. Hence, these characters need to repeatedly assess their relationship to the world. It is this ontology that makes the films compelling, in a way very different from Western cinema.

I invite you to discover Turkish films, including the work of Çağan Irmak, the sixth filmmaker I discuss in my book.

Laurence Raw

 

 

Laurence Raw is a professor of English at Başkent University in Turkey. In addition to Six Turkish Filmmakers, he is the author of Exploring Turkish Cultures and Impressions of the Turkish Stage, as well as numerous books on British and American literature and film.

New Books and New Paperbacks, November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 7, 2017 NEW IN PAPERBACK

Winner, Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture, American Conference for Irish Studies
PACKY JIM: Folklore and Worldview on the Irish Border
Ray Cashman

“Accessible to a broad audience. . . . A delight to read on many different levels and constitutes a valuable addition to the scholarship on the individual and tradition.”—Journal of Folklore Research

Growing up on a secluded smuggling route along the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Packy Jim McGrath regularly heard the news, songs, and stories of men and women who stopped to pass the time until cover of darkness. In his early years, he says, he was all ears—but now it is his turn to talk.

“Octogenarian bachelor Packy Jim McGrath of Lettercran, County Donegal, emerges here as both typical and singular, a barometer of continuity and change. Ray Cashman’s sharp and sympathetic observation delivers a classic ethnography that stakes a major claim for folkloristic studies as cutting-edge humanities research.”—Lillis Ó Laoire, author of On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: Songs and Singers in Tory Island

November 14, 2017
SIX TURKISH FILMMAKERS
Laurence Raw

“Surprising and innovative. Raw integrates historical research with literary references and personal reflections, using the work of contemporary Turkish filmmakers to discuss pressing issues of identity and transcultural understanding.”—Iain Robert Smith, King’s College London

In analysis of and personal interviews with Derviş Zaim, Zeki Demirkubuz, Semih Kaplanoğlu, Çağan Irmak, Tolga Örnek, and Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Raw draws connections with Turkish theater, art, sculpture, literature, poetry, philosophy, and international cinema. A native of England and a twenty-five-year resident of Turkey, Raw interleaves his film discussion with thoughtful commentary on nationalism, gender, personal identity, and cultural pluralism.

Wisconsin Film Studies Series
Patrick McGilligan, Series Editor

 

November 21, 2017
SEASON OF THE SECOND THOUGHT
Lynn Powell

“Not just written, but wrought. Powell’s new poems deftly combine keen observation with perfect pitch, and their rich chiaroscuro renders them vibrant and painterly as the Dutch masters they often reference. The current running through her lines leaves me shivering with excitement and gratitude.”
—R. T. Smith, author of In the Night Orchard

Season of the Second Thought begins in a deep blue mood, longing to find words for what feels beyond saying. Lynn Powell’s poems journey through the seasons, quarreling with the muse, reckoning with loss, questioning the heart and its “pedigree of Pentecost,” and seeking out paintings in order to see inside the self. With their crisp observations and iridescent language, these poems accumulate the bounty of an examined life. These lines emerge from darkness into a shimmering equilibrium—witty, lush, and hard-won.

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

 

November 28, 2017
THE WARS INSIDE CHILE’S BARRACKS: Remembering Military Service under Pinochet
Leith Passmore

“With crisp prose and superb scholarship, Leith Passmore provides a groundbreaking exploration of the lives and memories of military conscripts under, and after, the seventeen-year rule of General Pinochet, South America’s most famous violator of human rights in living memory.”
—Paul W. Drake, author of Between Tyranny and Anarchy

“Few books are able to capture, as this one does, the full complexity of the Pinochet dictatorship’s horror. Passmore leads us, in magisterial fashion, into one of its darkest corners: the tortured memories of thousands of former conscripts transformed simultaneously into perpetrators and victims of the dictatorial nightmare.”
—Verónica Valdivia, author of El golpe después del golpe: Leigh vs Pinochet (1960–1980)

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

New Haunted Heartland book features eerie accounts from 10 Midwest states

HAUNTED HEARTLAND IS PUBLISHED TODAY.

For decades, journalist Michael Norman has been tracking down spine-tingling tales that seem to arise from authentic incidents in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The young woman dead for more than a century haunting a section of famed Sheridan Road along Lake Michigan north of Chicago. A farmhouse in rural Iowa sheltering the ghost of a teenage boy killed in a freak farm accident. A ghostly workman in a plaid shirt playing peek-a-boo with unsuspecting staff at a famed Minnesota theater. The sly, invisible cat snuggling up against overnight visitors to a very old Ohio inn, while perfume of the feline’s ghostly mistress permeates the night air.

Those perplexing events, and over 80 more, are featured in Haunted Heartland, a collection of Midwest stories of the supernatural available just in time for Halloween from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Author Michael Norman has included eerie, entertaining and often baffling tales of ghosts and hauntings; possessions and exorcisms; phantom animals; puzzling, bobbing mystery lights; and more from 10 Midwestern states—Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Norman’s previous books include Haunted Wisconsin, Haunted America, and an earlier best-selling edition of Haunted Heartland that he co-authored with the late Beth Scott. Many of the original book’s stories are included and updated. Other stories are new to this 2017 second edition.

“The line between reality and legend in these stories is imprecise at times,” Norman said. “Some are clearly rooted in the folklore or storytelling tradition of a particular locale.”

He cites the Ozarks as an example of a region known for its storytelling tradition. And in southern Ohio there is the locally known folktale of a ghostly wolf that has been heard for well over a century. He and his mates are hunted until one by one they make their way to the “dying place of the wolves.”

“Some of these ‘true’ ghost stories have been told and retold so many times—each recitation adding its own twists and turns—that it’s hard to know for certain where, when or how each one originated,” he said. “But they all have one element in common: they are said to have originated with an actual event, as far as I can tell.”

Other stories in the book may fall more within the controversial realm of parapsychology dealing as they do with people who claim to have had perplexing encounters with something they consider of supernatural origin.

“That story of the Iowa teenager is an example,” Norman points out. “His sister was one of the sources. She heard his voice and felt his presence in their family home many years after his death. She had very specific, very credible encounters with her deceased older brother. I believe she believed in what happened to her.”

Michael Norman

Norman is an emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. 

He acknowledges that as a writer, as a journalist, one can’t always prove the stories are “true” in the strictest sense of the term. 

“I try to work with the ones that are most verifiable,” he said. “I like witnesses and first-hand accounts, not ‘my cousin’s best friend had a friend who said she saw a ghost outside her window.’”But that can prove to be difficult, not always possible, Norman admits.

“How does one ‘prove’ the existence of ghosts that might walk among us or that a particular place is ‘haunted’ so that skeptic and believer alike are satisfied?”

Although Norman had one encounter with a ukulele that appeared to play all by itself, he said he’s never personally seen a ghost. However, he’s interviewed hundreds of people over the years who say they have.

Norman thinks that by not taking a position as believer or non-believer he can more fairly approach the stories. He also depends on archival research and public sources such as newspaper accounts and first-hand accounts written by observers of the alleged haunting.

In some cases, Norman said, the ghost story is well known locally so there are both a number of witnesses and some written records.

“That’s the case with the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The ghost of the workman clad in a plaid shirt has been sighted off and on by staff for many years. But who he is and why he lingers still isn’t clear,” Norman said. His research into the theater’s long and colorful history didn’t provide an answer.

“I don’t take a hard position,” he said. “In the end I hope they are compelling stories of events we can’t easily explain or understand in a satisfactory manner, that they are meant to remain mysteries.”

Haunted Heartland and Haunted Wisconsin may be purchased from any local or online bookseller, or directly from the University of Wisconsin Press at the links.

New books in June 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in late June.

June 20, 2017
WRITTEN IN BLOOD

Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881
Lynn Ellen Patyk

In March 1881, Russia stunned the world when a small band of revolutionaries calling themselves “terrorists” assassinated Alexander II. Horrified Russians blamed the influence of European ideas, while shocked Europeans perceived something new and distinctly Russian in a strategy of political violence that became known as “the Russian method” or “terrorism”.

“A superb model of interdisciplinary scholarship: highly original, subtle, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. Analyzing both word and deed, Patyk rewrites the history of modern terrorism showing why the Russian case was pivotal. A gripping story.”—Susan Morrissey, author of Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia

 

June 27, 2017
THE POX LOVER
An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris
Anne-christine d’Adesky

Memories of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris told by a pioneering American AIDS journalist, lesbian activist, and daughter of French-Haitian elites.

“In a voice both powerful and cool, The Pox Lover takes on a sprawling personal history, deeply aware throughout that it is the politics of anyone’s day—and how we respond to it—that shapes a life. Never far from the mad joy of writing, loving, and being alive, even as it investigates our horribly mundane capacity for horror, this book is a masterpiece.”—Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave

 

June 27, 2017
YOOPER TALK

Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Kathryn A. Remlinger

Yooper Talk explains linguistic concepts with entertaining examples for general readers and also contributes to interdisciplinary discussions of dialect and identity in sociolinguistics, anthropology, dialectology, and folklore.

“Although humorous songs poke fun at Yoopers’ words and customs, Remlinger takes this place and its people very seriously. She explains how history, ethnicity, environment, economic changes, tourism, and especially language have created a colorful and distinctive regional dialect and identity.”—Larry Lankton, Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest
Series Editor(s) Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary

 

June 27, 2017
THE LIMA INQUISITION

The Plight of Crypto-Jews in Seventeenth-Century Peru
Ana E. Schaposchnik

The Lima Inquisition reveals the details of the Americas’ most alarming Inquisitorial crackdown: the ‘Great Complicity’ and subsequent Auto de Fe of Lima in 1639. Schaposchnik convincingly shows that it was not an aberration or just another Baroque-era spectacle—it was the essence of what the Inquisition was and had been all about, from inception to abolition.”—Kris Lane, Tulane University

“An in-depth look at the trials of the Great Complicity in the 1630s, during which almost 100 people, overwhelmingly men and women of Portuguese origin, were accused of being crypto-Jews and detained and tried by the Inquisition. Recommended.”Choice

 

June 27, 2017
9XM TALKING 
WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea

Randall Davidson

This is the fascinating history of the innovative work of Wisconsin’s educational radio stations, from the first broadcast by experimental station 9XM at the University of Wisconsin to the network of stations known today as Wisconsin Public Radio. Randall Davidson provides the first comprehensive history of the University of Wisconsin radio station.

“An engaging, even engrossing, narrative about the station’s pioneering work in broadcasting. … A reader witnesses … the struggles that small and educational broadcasters faced in the early years in what was nearly a constant battle to maintain a foothold in the frequency spectrum.” Journalism History

 

 

June 27
FROM WAR TO GENOCIDE
Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994
André Guichaoua, Translated by Don E. Webster, Foreword by Scott Straus

“A landmark in the historiography of the Rwandan genocide. No serious scholar writing about the genocide can afford to ignore this trailblazing contribution.”—René Lemarchand, author of The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

Critical Human Rights   Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

Finding Frenzy among the Pinery Boys

 Today the University of Wisconsin Press releases Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era, published in the series Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest. This is a new book that incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Franz Rickaby’s landmark 1926 collection of lumberjack songs. Included in Pinery Boys is a biography of Rickaby by his granddaughter, Gretchen Dykstra. In this guest post, she comments on her quest to find the grandfather she never knew, tracing his steps through the Upper Midwest.  

Although I’m a New Yorker now, I’ve always liked the Midwest. When I was seven I spent the summer swinging from barn beams into haystacks at my grandmother’s dairy farm in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. My father was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He, my mother, one sister, and I all graduated from UW–Madison, and my step-grandfather, Clarence Dykstra, was its chancellor. But it took me sixty years to write about the Midwest—and then it was thanks to Bill Zinsser, my late, great writing teacher.

When Bill went blind, he stopped writing and teaching formally, but he met individually with some writers in his rambling Manhattan apartment. I was one of the lucky ones. I went about once a month. If I came at noon I’d bring him a sandwich; if I came at 2:00 I’d bring him cookies. That was the deal. He’d sit at the dining room table, sunglasses and baseball cap on, and listen intently as I read my latest pages. Occasionally, he’d stop me and, in his inimitable, funny, but always supportive way, would offer an editorial suggestion.

“Gretchen, if you are a bus driver going from New York to Miami, you can’t head to Chicago without telling your riders why.” Then I’d know I had an organizational problem.

It was Bill who urged me to go looking for the grandfather I never knew—Franz Rickaby, who had died when he was only thirty-five. My grandmother had called him Frenzy. As a young English professor at the University of North Dakota, Franz wandered the Upper Midwest from 1919-1923. With a fiddle on his back, he sought the songs of the shanty boys from the camps of the quickly disappearing white pine forests.

His resulting songbook was published by Harvard University Press several months after he died in 1926. The book became a minor classic in the world of American folklore and folksong. Edited by George Lyman Kittredge, praised by Carl Sandburg, and celebrated by Alan Lomax, Rickaby’s book was unique for the lyrics, the tunes, and the vivid portrait he painted of the lumberjacks and their lives.

I took Bill’s advice and hit the road. I traced Rickaby’s footsteps—as many as I could—and, in doing so, I met my grandfather. And I came to know a slice of American history from the lumber industry to the forest fires, from cutover land to the last remaining majestic white pines. I dove into the files of archives and historical societies from Galesburg, Illinois, to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, to Virginia, Minnesota, and points in between. When I called eminent folklorist Jim Leary, who knew Rickaby’s work well, a new edition of my grandfather’s work took shape. Pinery Boys was born.

It has four parts: Rickaby’s original text with all the lyrics, music, and his lively notes; an introduction by Leary, placing Rickaby in historical context; additional never-before-published songs that Rickaby collected, with notes by Leary; and the story of my own quest and discovery of who Rickaby was, what he might have seen, and what motivated him.

One man, one life, a glorious time, a changing landscape, and three voices.

 

Franz Rickaby (1889–1925) was born in Arkansas, educated at Knox College and Harvard University, and taught at the University of North Dakota.

Gretchen Dykstra is a writer living in New York City. She was the founding president of the National 9/11 Memorial Foundation, commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and president of the Times Square Alliance.

 

 

Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

Aaron Denham, author of Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana, comments on the importance of reading about distressing subjects. His book is published today in the University of Wisconsin Press series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

As I began writing about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In their fear, and with limited treatment options, families occasionally hasten their child’s death.

When speaking about my research to friends and the public, my descriptions of families’ difficult decisions would often induce silence or provoke awkward replies. After one presentation depicting a family’s struggles to care for a spirit child, a well-intentioned literature professor suggested I bring an MRI machine to the remote savanna to scan the children to determine if they are indeed spirits. In other venues, some people vehemently denied the fact that infanticide was even occurring. The most powerful responses, however, come from parents with young children. I soon learned to temper my descriptions after a friend became distressed when I casually explained the grim reality one family faced. She vividly imagined her infant confronting similar circumstances.

Some authors and anthropologists have written about the value of attending to their own emotions and the anxieties that arise while conducting research. George Devereux stressed that ethnographers should scrutinize their reactions and blind spots, because our emotional worlds shape the ways we experience and interpret other people. This self-attunement is useful for readers too. How might our internal world shape our understanding of what we read?

When confronted with difficult material, our emotions and anxieties can enhance or limit comprehension. When I’ve discussed infanticide, I have found that people quickly gravitate to familiar but experience-distant sociobiological paradigms. These are often encapsulated in the question: “Considering their circumstances, doesn’t infanticide make good environmental sense?” Although at times reasonable, biofundamentalist accounts can foreclose deeper moral engagements with human experience. People defer to purely objective explanations to distance anxiety and move disturbing knowledge to more familiar and manageable terms. Devereux described this process as interpretive undercomprehension. This dilemma results in anxiously clinging to a point of view simply because the reader can “tolerate that particular interpretation, while considering all other (psychologically intolerable) interpretations unscholarly and erratic.” Jacques Lacan described a similar process that he termed the “passion for ignorance,” or the desire not to know, and to want nothing more to do with knowledge that is too intense.

Authors leverage readers’ internal worlds in many ways. In my writing, I wanted to bridge diverse cultural experiences to confront the perceived strangeness of infanticide. I wanted to encourage moments of mutual recognition, if not always an empathetic attunement. The challenge has been in finding a balance between presenting the visceral realities of people’s lives and developing emotionally tolerable narratives that facilitate a deeper level of understanding.

Readers can also contemplate their own reactions to emotional subjects. Stories that confront cultural difference and distressing practices can evoke anxiety or revulsion. In these cases, we can maintain our passion for ignorance, or we can take the opportunity to contemplate the reason for these sentiments and reflect on the complexity of our shared humanity. Challenging stories can help build empathy and inspire us to action. Moreover, as we open ourselves to difficult material, we do more than learn more about the lives of others. If we pay attention to what a text evokes within, we can ultimately come away learning more about ourselves.

Aaron R. Denham is the director of the Master of Development Studies and Global Health program and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He formerly was a mental health provider for children and families, a fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders.

A model for 21st-century prophetic activism

Doris Dirks and Patricia Relf  are the authors of a new book,  To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. In this guest post, they reflect on the social justice activism of the little-known Clergy Consultation Service, a religious organization of the 1960s and early 1970s dedicated to providing women with safe abortions.

On May 22, 1967, at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States, an article on the front page of the New York Times announced that twenty-one New York City clergy would counsel and refer women to licensed doctors for safe abortions. The group called itself the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).

Doris Dirks, Minister Howard Moody, and Patricia Relf

Not many people know the story of the CCS. Some of the loudest speakers in the debate about abortion access since Roe v. Wade have been conservative religious voices, leading the general public to believe that all people of faith, especially the clergy, were opposed to abortion.

Just since 2010, states have adopted 334* abortion restrictions , constituting 30% of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe v. Wade. On March 6, 2017, the White House proposed preserving federal payments to Planned Parenthood only if it discontinues providing abortions. Congressional Republicans have said that they will move quickly to strip all federal funds from Planned Parenthood.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the CCS approaches in May, we think about the network of some 3,000 clergy who referred as many as 450,000 women for safe abortions between 1967 and 1973. Will that kind of service will be needed again? The clergy we interviewed for our book came of age during the 1950s and 1960s and were at the forefront of the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements.

When we first started researching the CCS in 2002, we wondered where the voices of progressive clergy were in the social justice movements of the twenty-first century. Now we are starting to hear those voices being raised once more. In recent weeks, clergy and religious organizations have spoken out on transgender civil rights. More than 1,800 religious leaders signed on to an amicus brief on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a trans student who has fought for the right to use a high school restroom that aligns with his gender identity. A broad network of thirty-seven Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a campaign to mobilize congregants to lobby Congress and the president on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people.

The pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church and congregants at the Chicago Pride Parade.

We are experiencing divisive and turbulent times. The CCS provides a historical example of how clergy acted in the past to help women get safe abortions. It provides an example for social justice activism today.

*research published in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute.

Doris A. Dirks is a senior academic planner with the University of Wisconsin System Administration.

Patricia A. Relf is a freelance writer.