Tag: september theme

September Theme Sign-up for Books: Memoir & Memory

In choosing Memoir & Memory as our monthly theme for September, a reflection of our year in publishing the genre was telling: A particularly monumental year for Yale University Press in its release of personal letters and correspondence, we published The Richard Burton Diaries (Oct. 2012, pbk July 2013), edited by Chris Williams, with ongoing #BurtonDiaries snippets on Twitter, and The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone, will be forthcoming in October, while we celebrated Bernstein’s birthday anniversary in August with a sneak preview letter from Frank Sinatra. Frank Prochaska challenged the genre convention with his publication of The Memoirs of Walter Bagheot, an imaginative reconstruction of the memoir the eminent Victorian editor Walter Bagehot might have written, from which an excerpt is available on our blog.

With The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, editor Michael O’Brien presents Woodward’s engaging, sharp, and often humorous letters, written to figures as diverse as John Kennedy, David Riesman, Richard Hofstadter, and Robert Penn Warren. These letters offer us a privileged glimpse not only into Woodward’s private thoughts, but also the broader complexities of Southern culture.

Sign-up to receive special discounts and timely announcements about our list of books!

Sign-up to receive special discounts and timely announcements about our list of books!

The title of renowned art historian Svetlana AlpersRoof Life refers to what one discovers looking out from high windows with distant and distinctive views. She assembles descriptions of things that mattered in a life that began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, continued in Berkeley, California, and is now lived in New York City. The experience of Europe informs it all; as Alpers solves the question of her father’s place and date of birth, she reconstructs the life of her Russian grandfather in a distant and tumultuous Europe of a century ago. She writes: This is not art history, and it is not criticism, nor is it some mixture of the two. It is not, in other words, what people expect me to be doing.”

The poignant and revelatory Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery gives professor Rachel Adams’ deeply moving and honest account of welcoming a baby born with Down syndrome. You can also read an extended interview with Adams on parenthood, health care, and the prejudices and changes our society must yet overcome to live up to its promises of inclusivity.

As we approach the centennial of World War I in 1914, Anthony Fletcher’s discovery of a trunk full of his grandfather’s letters recreates vivid accounts of British soldiers’ experiences and reveals the comradeship, humor, and strong morale that sustained them in the face of the horrors of war in Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front. And the never-before-published Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Rafael Lemkin, edited by Donna-Lee Frieze, recounts the life of a giant among modern ethical thinkers, a Holocaust survivor who invented the word “genocide,” inspired the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, and profoundly influenced human rights history.

Also never before published: Susan Sontag’s 1979 interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone showed her intellectual clarity and conversational confidence at the height of her career; the full interview is available to the public in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview. Their wide ranging conversation covered sexuality, gender issues, illness, aging, and political theory. Listen to samples from the original recording on the Yale Press Log!

And just barely off our September list of arrivals for North America: The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time, and Ageing, by Drouwe Draaisma, who, with a storyteller’s gift and a scientist’s insights,  explores the terrain of memory, demolishes myths about forgetfulness as we grow older, and celebrates the unique qualities of the aging mind.

We’re soon to announce the expansion of many of YUP’s online channels, so be sure to sign up this week to receive our September “Memoir & Memory” e-newsletter, with a special discount on all the titles discussed this month on the Yale Press Log, and more!


Surrendering to The Allure of the Archives : The Joys of Historical Research

Whether it’s summer or winter, you freeze. Your hands grow stiff as you try to decipher the document, and very touch of its parchment or rag paper stains your fingers with cold dust. The writing, no matter how meticulous, how regular, is barely legible to untrained eyes. It sits before you on the reading room table, most often a worn-out looking bundle tied together with a cloth ribbon, its corners eaten away by time and rodents.

Allure of the ArchivesAnyone who has spent some time in an archive room will immediately understand the tension and thrill with which Arlette Farge describes her experience of handling age-old documents. Farge, Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, first published Le Goût de l’archive in 1989. It has since become a classic in the field of historiography, and is here translated by Thomas Scott-Railton in The Allure of the Archives, a captivating account of historical research and personal discovery.

As Farge was combing through the judicial records of eighteenth-century France, she was struck by the extraordinarily intimate portrayal of the lives of the poor in pre-Revolutionary France, especially women. When she looked at the words on the pages, she saw people: “The archive shines a light on the people of the city and their many faces, picking out individuals from the crowd, and casting silhouettes on the city walls.” The Allure of the Archives is Farge’s effort to share this exhilaration of uncovering hidden secrets with her readers, whether they be professional researchers to whom such pleasures are familiar, or history buffs curious to find out more about this craft.

To read The Allure of the Archives is to be invited into Farge’s experience in the archive rooms. We follow her through the process of getting a reader’s card, locating the correct office, finding the best seat, and walking up to the inventory shelves. We are there, with her, in the “inventory rooms with researchers poring over the card files, clacking the wooden drawers closed,” or in the “reading room, distracted momentarily by a neighbor’s cough or an archivist’s ringing phone, and yet totally caught up in our quest.” From between two pieces of paper, Farge slips a cloth out, covered in elegant handwriting, and we begin to read over her shoulder:

It’s a letter, the work of a prisoner in the Bastille, many years into a long sentence. He is writing his wife a pleading and affectionate letter. His dirty clothes were being sent to the laundry, and he took advantage of the occasion to sneak out a message. Nervous about the outcome, he begs to laundrywoman to please stitch a tiny blue cross on a pair of his cleaned stockings. This sign would reassure him that his cloth note reached his wife. That this piece of cloth now sits in the prison archives says of itself that no small blue cross was ever stitched into the prisoner’s cleaned stockings …

In this sensitive review from the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Moore describes the valuable insights offered by Farge’s book:

In this elegant and captivating (and admirably translated) account, a book that can fittingly be read alongside Marc Bloch’s classic The Historian’s Craft, we gain an appreciation of historical research as a calling, an obsession, and an insight into how our ideas about the past might be shaped, not by our need for a likely story, but by our pressing desires to study the past and to think about the dead, desires which forces us into a halting and strange conversation with old remnants, old paper, and words captured out of time.

Indeed, as we read Farge’s lyrical reflections on the challenges of interpreting and writing history, we are pulled into that “roaming voyage through the world of others,” and compelled to think about our own relation with the past.

A Personal and Scientific Experiment in the Wild

Earlier this month Jon Krakauer, author of the cult classic book Into the Wild, published a New Yorker article that revealed new insights into the death of Christopher McCandless, a young American hiker who died trying to create a life for himself in the Alaskan wilderness. The literary account of his life and death has been a polarizing topic. but part of the book’s appeal is the immersive, inside look into life of an Atlanta native learning to adapt himself to a world far away from urban sprawl. He was the doomed guinea pig of his own personal and intellectual experiment.

Dog Days, Raven NightsIn their book Dog Days and Raven Nights, John and Colleen Marzluff conduct a scientific experiment that led them to write an account of their own long-term immersion in the natural world, which took place at the same time as the beginning of McCandless cross-country adventures. The Marzluffs state that their three-year stay in Maine is “not a story of wilderness,” but their narrative nevertheless allows the reader to experience the joys and challenges of adapting one’s lifestyle to Nature’s timetable in a remote, rural corner of the U.S.A. Despite the clear differences between the Marzluffs and McCandless, both accounts provide readers with an inside look at the best and worst of surviving in a rural setting and how it affects one’s personal development. Further, Marzluff’s Dog Days and Raven Nights allows the reader to observe newly minted graduate student scientists trying to find their way in a more figurative wilderness.

Both McCandless and the Marzluff’s faced detractors who asked the question, “What’s the point?” Colleen Marzluff discusses this quandary when explaining the difficulties of obtaining grants to help fund their living and work expenses:

Not everyone was so sure America needed to invest in basic science, especially our brand of science…The tensions between funding basic academic research and solving society’s urgent problems were apparent to us…we had always lived in a culture that valued science.

Another question she and her husband faced was whether or not it was more worthwhile to conduct research in the jungle or savannah and focus on rare animals. Why study something as ordinary as ravens?  According to the forward, co-researcher Bernd Heinrich writes, “The raven’s influence on humanity’s language, art, religion, and popular culture is unmatched in the animal world.” Yet for some, ravens are simply annoying whilst for others they are scary. But the Marzluffs believe nature that exists right on our doorstep is very relevant and that the wider goal of better understanding Nature is worthwhile in itself.

Nature did not fully reveal her secrets, but we were pleased to remove some of the mysterious cloak that had long darkened raven nights.

That mysterious cloak also veils the Marzluffs from their seeing the road ahead of them as scientific researchers. Despite the job insecurity of their chosen career paths as researchers, the Marzluffs placed much faith in the work that they were doing. John himself says that his “muscles were…screaming from two hours of confinement. But the discomfort mattered little; my confidence was soaring.”

Despite the optimism of the narrative, the account is very real in the sense that it does not sugarcoat the physical, professional, and psychological hurdles both individuals had to overcome to continue with their work. The snow would ruin what they were building or budgeting constraints hindered their plans. Into the Wild is a blend of Krakauer’s more objective journalistic writing mixed with the personal diary entries that relate what McCandless’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Similarly, we see extracts of John’s Field Notes–which are focused almost entirely on the project and the behavioral development of the ravens–and of Colleen’s Journal that reveals the interior obstacles of this project on of their personal development as a married couple and as researchers.

McCandless threw himself into the natural world and eschewed personal relationships to achieve spiritual transcendence; in contrast, the Marzluff’s rural-living immersion occasionally strained but ultimately strengthened their relationship with friends, neighbors, and coworkers ; the “unquestioning generosity” from their neighbors and local friends.

Far from being a book for only natural scientists or nature enthusiasts, Dog Days and Raven Nights is a look that reveals truths about people (as well as ravens and dogs!). It also shows a young couple’s particular journey that is plagued with unforeseen hurdles that occurred away from the aviary or the dog-sledding track: when grants are not awarded; when job applications are rejected; when the plan fails and you have to go back to square one; or when you discover that you have to change the plan completely.

The book however also shows the brighter outcomes of life. Some were a welcome surprise, such as the development of Colleen Marzluff’s dog-sledding hobby, while some were highly desired, such as when the ravens started to get comfortable in their aviary.

One takeaway from this book is clear: to make it out of the wilderness of uncertainty, your best bet is to have faith in your purpose, work hard, and maintain your human relationships based on kindness and generosity and trust. It is a great message for readers of all ages, from those entering the intimidating post-graduate job hunt to older adults making a radical change in their lives.  The epilogue shows that the Marzluffs’ faith in their work and those who helped them yielded rewards from that continue to reveal themselves even now, twenty years later.

In Conversation with Susan Sontag: A Window to 1970s Gender Politics

A writer, novelist, filmmaker, and activist, Susan Sontag was an engaged intellectual for whom thinking was a form of feeling and feeling a form of thinking. One of the most influential critics of her generation, she was widely admired by many women and something of a contested figure within the LGBTQ communities, in addition to achieving international celebrity status. Unlike many writers, Sontag was not shy of interviews. She valued the opportunity for talk in any setting, as a way of collecting and focusing her thoughts. Her interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone, only one-third of which was published in 1979, showed Sontag’s intellectual clarity and conversational confidence at the height of her career. Their wide-ranging conversation covered sexuality, gender issues, illness, aging, and political theory, among other topics. Now, the full 12-hour interview is available to the public in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview.

Some aspects of Cott and Sontag’s discussion of feminism may be familiar to a modern audience. Sontag acknowledges the continued importance of the feminist movement, but expresses frustration with the way that it segregated women and their artistic and intellectual work.

(Sontag on de-segregationist feminism, original recording)

In this interview, Sontag dwells on the double standard in societal expectations of male and female sexuality. For Sontag, sexual attraction was ideally bound up with an intellectual affinity with one’s beloved.

(Sontag on the double standards for sexuality, original recording)

Here, Cott and Sontag address gender differences as they talk about the writing of Jan Morris, one of the first and most prominent writers to undergo a sex change. Sontag reveals a remarkably open attitude towards gender construction, one that many readers will find exemplary.

(Sontag on gender construction, original recording)

C. Vann Woodward, the Twentieth Century’s Foremost Southern Historian

Letters of C Vann WoodwardC. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) enjoys a reputation today as one of the most influential historians of the post-Reconstruction South and a prominent supporter of civil rights. Perhaps less known is that he was also a highly gifted writer of letters. In The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, editor Michael O’Brien presents Woodward’s engaging, sharp, and often humorous letters, written to figures as diverse as John Kennedy, David Riesman, Richard Hofstadter, and Robert Penn Warren. These letters offer us a privileged glimpse not only into Woodward’s private thoughts, but also the broader complexities of Southern culture. Here are some selections from the new volume:

On his application for the Rhodes Scholarship (1931):

Mine are the slimmest of chances but I could not resist the temptation to apply. Never have I conceived of myself as the type of rah rah Übermensch they seem to admire. I am trying to create the fiction that I am an intellectual giant in embryo that only requires three years of Oxford atmosphere to hatch me out.

On the Johns Hopkins’ Club refusal to admit a black student as a member (1947):

As a member of this club I should like to ask the gentlemen of the present board to reconsider this old ruling. It seems to me that changed conditions call for new rules [...] a rule which discriminates between students on the basis of race is not consistent with the liberal tradition of the Johns Hopkins campus.

On the value of protest and dissent (1960):

[History] tends to postulate a norm–the status quo, the consensus, the establishment, the American Way, as the case may be–and to regard any serious deviation as abnormal, if not irrational. And this without substantive reference to the causes and environment of protest and dissent: poverty, hunger, insecurity, alienation, unemployment, frustration, all in the midst of potential abundance and fulfillment.

On his lack of a “philosophy of history” (1966):

What I have is hardly a philosophy, but more a complex of intellectual problems arising, first, from being a southerner at one and the same time being out of line with the dominant southern attitudes and yet deeply attached to the South and, second, being an American with comparable ambivalence about that experience as well and, third, being a human being with comparable ditto and, fourth, trying to say something sensible about the history of my region and country without disloyalty to my region or my country or myself or rather to the better nature of all three.

On his personal appreciation for the Yale community (1992):

I offer my recent experience with a non-Yale cardiologist who changed my medication and firmly instructed me to continue it the rest of my life and never to combine it with the consumption of alcohol in any form or quantity. He would not listen to reason. For a whole miserable week I complied. It then occurred to me that one advantage of membership in a learned community was the ability to find an authority who supported one’s own point of view. … [The Deputy Dean of the Yale Medical School] proved to be a sympathetic spirit and a reasonable man. It was his suggestion that it was simpler to change the medication than the man. With such a change I now enjoy my customary martini before dinner and a welcome change in my quality of life.

So long as I am assured membership in such a community and access to its wonderful library I can think of no further amelioration to address.

Raphael Lemkin: The Unsung Hero Who Gave Genocide Its Name

Guilt without guilt is more destructive to us than justified guilt, because in the first case catharsis is impossible.

Totally UnofficialHe was the man who coined the term “genocide” and dedicated his entire life to making it illegal — but most people still don’t know his name. Raphael Lemkin, a Holocaust survivor, successfully campaigned in the 40s for the United Nations to approve the Genocide Convention, which establishes genocide as an international crime and emphasizes the punishment of the perpetrators. And yet for the better half of the past century, he has been largely ignored by the general public. Published here for the very first time, more than fifty years after his death, is Lemkin’s own account of his life.

Part history and part memoir, Totally Unofficial, edited by Donna-Lee Frieze, intertwines the momentous events of World War II with the intimate thoughts of a Polish Jewish refugee, who could only watch helplessly from America as his entire family was killed in the Holocaust, and who then threw himself into an all-consuming, self-punishing quest to fight the worst of all crimes against humanity.

Born in 1900, Lemkin was just six when he received news about a pogrom in the city of Bialystok, a few miles away from his family farm. There, anti-Semitic mobs had cut open the stomachs of their victims and stuffed them with feathers from pillows and comforters. He took an intellectual interest in the persecution of minority groups as soon as he learned to read, devouring books about the destruction of the Christians by Nero; of Carthage, the Huguenots, the Catholics in Japan. These readings left an indelible mark on his young conscience, as he renders sensitively in his introduction:

My conscience protested when I read that the Huguenots in Lyon were roasted alive by being compelled to sit with naked bodies on heated irons. The Moors were deported on boats. While on deck they were stripped of their clothes and exposed for hours to the sun, which finally killed them. Why should the sun, which brought life to our farm and reddened the cherries on our trees, be turned into a murderer?

Later in his youth, when he was a law student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, he was similarly affected by the case of Shalom Schwarzbard, a Jewish tailor who had shot the Ukrainian minister of war, Symon Petliura. Petliura was responsible for the massacres that had taken the lives of Schwarzbard’s parents. Schwarzbard was eventually acquitted on the grounds of insanity, but Lemkin deplored the legal framework in which the decision had been made. The man had avenged hundreds of thousands of innocents with this assassination, but he had had to take the law into his own hands to do so. Why did the perpetrators of genocide have to be punished by vigilantes, and why could the court condemn only the latter?

When the Nazis invaded Poland, Lemkin was forced to flee to Sweden, and then to the United States, where he obtained a visa based on his appointment at Duke University. One morning in June 1941, he opened a well-worn envelope which had been traveling for more than two months. Written on a scrap of paper were a few simple words from his parents: “We are well and happy that the letter will find you in America.” Something within Lemkin told him that this was his parents’ final goodbye, and for days he could not chase away this heavy feeling:

Several days later, when the North Carolina night was paling, I woke, covered with deep sweat. I had had a dream in which my mother’s face came close to me. I didn’t see her body, just her face, with her hair combed low on her forehead. Her eyes smiled through a thick mist of sorrow, as if she knew a secret I did not. I stretched my hand toward her face, to caress it, but she moved back from my touch, fading gradually, and I awoke.

Several years later, he learned that his parents’ home had been burned to the ground, and that they had been sent to the gas chambers.

In a sensitive and penetrating review in The New Republic, Michael Ignatieff examines the obsessional quality of Lemkin’s devotion to his cause. Lemkin never married, had few friends, and left stable jobs to pursue his campaign to promote the Genocide Convention. In 1959, he died alone, with neither money nor friends. “He appears,” Ignatieff writes, “to have been on of Kafka’s hunger artists, those moving, self-punishing creatures who cut themselves off from the world, preyed upon by a guilt they cannot name, making their misery into their life’s work.” Towards the end of the book, Lemkin recounts an exchange with—who else—himself, as he considers the enormity of the project he has undertaken. In his mind, the sacrifice for the survival of future generations was always one that had to be made, and one that he took on in full knowledge that it would, ironically, lead to his own demise.

But this fight will finally destroy you, yourself. So what? Whoever fights for an ideal must risk his life.

Svetlana Alpers: A Life Spent Looking

“This is not art history, and it is not criticism, nor is it some mixture of the two. It is not, in other words, what people expect me to be doing.”—Svetlana Alpers, Roof Life, “1 Beginning”

Svetlana Alpers is one of the most influential art historians of her generation. She has covered the Dutch Golden age painters and other Old Masters with a discerning eye that, as her new book Roof Life reveals, has been trained through an almost religious dedication to observation. The book’s enigmatic title refers to what one discovers looking out from high windows with distant and distinctive views. It is about looking as a way of being. In some moments, the intensity with which Alpers looks out at the world is self-consciously reminiscent Hitchcock’s Rear Window. At others, her observation is turned fixedly inward, detailing the history of her father and grandparents in their journey through the difficulties of early 1900s Europe. Alpers’ book of vignettes from a life dedicated to observation pieces together into a compelling self-portrait.

“Back in the 1970’s I wrote, in a rather earnest tone, about taking time to look. Art History was on my mind: ‘With such a profusion of objects and cultures, with old hierarchies crumbling, how does one justify such an occupation as looking? It is a daunting question.’

The question still stands as I look out from high windows. But so does the interest of looking: the strangeness and the distance of things that the eye takes in.” —Svetlana Alpers, Roof Life, “2 Roof Life”

Anyone who has attempted to draw a still life has experienced the intensity of the gaze required to truly understand what one is looking at. Through the example of Alpers’ life spent looking, the reader is also given a representation of that state of mind experienced during deep observation. Her compulsion to look out from high windows is almost contagious, urging the viewer to let their own eyes wander to the nearest window.


Stay tuned for an excerpt from Roof Life

Ghostwriting on Behalf of the ‘Greatest Victorian’s’ Ghost

NPG D7461; Walter Bagehot by Norman Hirst, after  Unknown artist

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)

The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot is an unusual inclusion in our September theme, “Memoir and Memory,” as the recorded memories, although told in the first person, were fabricated on behalf of Bagehot by historian Frank ProchaskaWalter Bagehot (1826-1877), called the “Greatest Victorian”, left no memoir of his life as a prominent Victorian lawyer, businessman, essayist and journalist. For 17 years he was editor of The Economist, and to this day the magazine includes a weekly “Bagehot” column. His life of true brilliance is now documented for posterity.

Historian and author Frank Prochaska, a long-time fan of Bagehot, has taken up the challenge of writing the faux autobiography on Bagehot’s behalf.  In this extract from the Foreword to The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, Prochaska explains the motivation behind the book and introduces his understanding of ‘the Victorian with whom you would most want to have dinner’.

G. M. Young, the great historian of Victorian England, once turned over in his mind candidates for the title of the ‘Greatest Victorian’. He was not looking for the supreme genius working in Britain between 1827 and 1901; if so, Darwin and George Eliot would have been among those with strong claims to the distinction. Instead, Young was looking for someone with a roomy and energetic mind, who could have been of no other time: ‘a man with sympathy to share, and genius to judge, its sentiments and movements: a man not too illustrious or too consummate to be companionable, but one, nevertheless, whose ideas took root and are still bearing; whose influence, passing from one fit mind to another, could transmit, and can still impart, the most previous element in Victorian civilization, its robust and masculine sanity’. He awarded the title to Walter Bagehot.

I first discovered Bagehot reading his Historical Essays as a student. Over the years, his works have played an increasing part in my own writings, particularly those on political thought and the British monarchy. In my last book, Eminent Victorians on American Democracy, I devoted a chapter to his criticism of the United States Constitution. As the manuscript was in production, I returned to some of his essays in The Economist and the Saturday Review, in which he dissected politics in a playful manner that made Victorian England seems timeless yet familiar. Sadly, he did not leave a memoir. Given my long-standing interest in his life and times I decided to compose one on his behalf. I chose to write the book in the first person because I thought Bagehot could speak more vividly of his life and mind than I could as an intermediary in a conventional biography.

Bagehot, to use his phrase, was a ‘self-delineating’ writer, someone who left a vibrant image of himself in his essays, books and letters. Much of the text that follows is in his own words, drawn from disparate sources, edited and expanded to create a life in narrative. Bagehot was a man of letters in the broadest sense, with an absorbent mind of remarkable versatility. Whatever he wrote – and he wrote brilliantly – he expressed in a lively conversational style. Talking to him, said his friend William Roscoe, ‘was like riding a horse with a perfect mouth’. His animated prose gives much the same pleasure, whether he was writing for leisured readers of the quarterlies or busy City men in The Economist. He delighted in aphorisms and despised what he saw as the most unpardonable of faults – dullness. If these memoirs are ever dull, the fault will not be Bagehot’s but my own.

Unlike a conventional ghost writer, I have not been able to consult the subject in person. But I have sought to be sensitive to the way in which Bagehot would have portrayed himself had he left a memoir. On the surface, he was a man of buoyant cheerfulness, which disguised an underlying melancholic reserve. Well connected but with few intimate friends, he did not seek the limelight or push himself on others. On grounds of confidentiality, he would have understated his influence on government economic policy, which was not insignificant. He would also have been guarded about his personal and family life, as would have been usual in a mid-Victorian gentleman.  In any case, there is nothing to suggest that he was anything but a dutiful son and a faithful husband. His mother, who suffered from mental illness, was the central character in his life, and he would have treated her with delicacy in a memoir. It seems unlikely that he would have discussed her descent into uncontrollable behaviour, which led to her incarceration in an asylum for several weeks in 1866.

Inevitably, a book of this nature is an historical reconstruction. Examples of the genre are rare, but splendidly achieved in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. As Yourcenar reminds us, the reconstruction of an historical figure written in the first person borders on fiction, but is greatly enriched by close adherence to the facts. Unlike Hadrian, Bagehot left a large body of material to draw on. His Collected Works, edited by Norman St John-Stevas, runs to fifteen volumes. In addition, there are the diaries of his wife Eliza, and various biographies, reviews and scholarly studies.


Of course, this is not the autobiography that Bagehot would have written had he left an autobiography; but it is, I believe, free of anachronism and true to his life and times. I have sought to be an amanuensis rather than a ventriloquist and throughout have tried to sustain his tone of voice and the flavour of his writing. I can only hope that Bagehot’s shade would forgive the book’s liberties, and any errors of fact or lapses in judgement. It will have served its purpose if it encourages readers to return to the original writings of this eminent Victorian. If he is not the ‘Greatest Victorian’, he is the Victorian with whom you would most want to have dinner.

Copyright © 2013 by Frank Prochaska. All rights reserved.

Letters from the Western Front

“Write as often as you can. I long for letters now.”
—Private Peter McGregor

Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western FrontIn 1989, historian Anthony Fletcher found an old tin trunk among his grandmother’s possessions. In it were 243 letters, sent by his grandfather Major Reggie Trench to his wife Clare during World War I. They lay beside 35 other letters that Reggie had written to his mother—after he died in battle in 1918, she had painstakingly traced his pencilled words in ink. As he delved into these carefully-preserved memories, Fletcher realized that letters provided an alternative avenue of research into WWI that hadn’t yet been fully explored. Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front is the result of that fateful discovery.

Written in the midst of chaotic circumstances and addressed to the closest confidantes, letters provide an incredibly intimate glimpse into the thoughts of soldiers during the war. “They have an immediacy unlike any other source,” Fletcher writes. In Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front, he focuses on the letters of eighteen men whose writings vividly reveal the emotional experience of being on the battlefield. These soldiers vary widely in age, social background, profession and rank but together, their letters become a powerful lens for some of the most important aspects of the war experience: the patriotic idealism, trauma and shell shock, social hierarchy among soldiers, the ebb and flow of morale, and attitudes toward the enemy.

Some of the letter-writers seemed able to keep their spirits up throughout the war, perhaps most dramatically exemplified by Julian Grenfell, who found the experience to be an endlessly energizing source of identity and purpose. “I adore war,” he wrote, “it is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well and so happy.” But others, such as the eighteen-year-old Alec Reader, struggled to find meaning in the many day-to-day horrors of the battlefield. These difficulties were compounded by the dilemma of what to reveal, and what to conceal in their letters back home. On one hand, they wanted their letters to be a source of reassurance for their loved ones; on the other, they craved a cathartic outlet:

Providing honest matter-of-fact accounts of performance yet making light of the worst aspects of trench warfare, soldiers were walking a tightrope. Emotions slipped out: hints of the strain they were under marked the most thoughtfully constructed letters. For there was sometimes a desperate wish and need to tell.

Alec Reader, for example, finally allowed himself to be fully honest on 4 May 1916 when he wrote, “I have seen men killed and wounded and have had to carry a mortally wounded man to the dressing station on a stretcher … the poor chap was dying fast and knew it. It was awful … war is a rotten game.” But then a few days later, he was racked with guilt about what he had written: “don’t take any notice as we all have our rotten moments.”

On the other hand, letters could also serve as a coping mechanism for these men, by offering them the indulgence of nostalgia. Fletcher explains,

“Men found the more stressful their situation became the greater their need for their homes as a heaven. Nostalgia distracted soldiers from the tedium of trench routine. At times it offered escape from anxieties that threatened to become intolerable. Emotional survival could be purchased by drawing upon the power of distant love.”

So it was in this spirit that Robert Hermon teased his wife, Ethel, about her initial reluctance to accept his proposal, referring to the “day when you nearly chucked away a damned good bargain,” and that Alec Reader trivially asked his mother if she remembered “the way I used to spread the butter and jam?”

By bringing together these letters and revealing the broader truths that they convey, Fletcher gives us a unique view of history that abounds in empathy. ”Interpretation of the Great War,” he concludes, “has gone through many phases since 1918. I have sought to add another layer to it in this book by a precise focus on a particular kind of source material … My stories of living and dying, of shellfire in the front line and football and concerts behind it, have sought to capture the struggle as a few men lived it. I see telling these personal stories as a contribution to the long and continuing historical project of coming to terms with four of the most momentous years in our national history.”

A Conversation with Rachel Adams on Raising Henry and a Book Giveaway

Rachel Adams, credit Eileen Barroso

Rachel Adams, credit Eileen Barroso

Publishing this month, Rachel Adams‘s Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery gives a deeply moving and honest account of welcoming a baby born with Down syndrome. Adams, a professor of English and American studies, is also director of the Future of Disability Studies Project at Columbia University. In the interview below, she reveals more of the experiences that inspired her writing and openly addresses the challenges that we face as a society to support children and adults with disabilities, even as our progressive thinking makes further claims for its inclusivity. Goodreads members can enter to win a copy of the book from now until September 30!

Yale University Press: What motivated you to write Raising Henry?  Who do you hope your readers will be?

Rachel Adams: I’m a literary critic by training, and when my son Henry was born I immediately turned to literature to try to understand my circumstances. I was dismayed by the lack of reliable, informative reading material about raising a child with Down syndrome, as well as the quantity of misinformation I found in mainstream pregnancy guides and childrearing books. The most heartening read was Michael Berube’s wonderful book—Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child—about the first years in the life of his son Jamie, who has Down syndrome. Berube presents an ideal combination of information, critique, and narrative. His book doesn’t discount fears but gives hope and a better understanding of the challenges.

Much as I loved Berube’s book, I saw the need for a story told from a mother’s perspective and one that would also address some of the social, political, and scientific changes in the 15 years since Berube had published his book. At first I wrote for myself alone, jotting down notes about my observations and experiences that I hadn’t seen represented elsewhere. Once I started to share my writing, I was gratified by the warm and receptive responses of my readers. I realized that this was a story other people wanted to read and talk about.

I had written several academic books, but Raising Henry came from a very different place.  My views were informed by research, but I was speaking about my life experiences and that allowed me to connect with readers in a very different and deeply satisfying way. I very much hope my book will be read by other parents, including those who don’t have children with Down syndrome. I also hope it will be read by doctors and other healthcare professionals, who often have regrettably little understanding of what it is like to raise a child with a genetic disability. Finally, I hope it will be read by teachers and educators and will be assigned to students who are planning careers in education, medicine, or public policy.


YUP: Can you tell us some positive things you have discovered or experienced as the mother of a disabled child?

RA: The most important thing to know is that being the mother of a disabled child brings with it the same experiences of joy, satisfaction, and frustration as being the parent of any other child. The best lesson I’ve learned from Henry is that the world is full of people who have devoted their lives and careers to helping others. Those people had been largely invisible to me until Henry gave them a reason to offer their help to us. My list includes doctors and other healthcare professionals, social workers, teachers, therapists, service coordinators, caregivers, and many, many others who have given their time and energy to helping Henry develop to his full potential and to secure the happiness and health of our family. Although there are many problems with our current healthcare and social welfare systems in this country, we shouldn’t lose sight of the incredible resources that are available to support those with a family member who is disabled.


Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and DiscoveryYUP: The most challenging part of raising a child with Down syndrome?

RA: We are a family of overachievers, and I’ve always been driven by the desire for perfection.  Having a child with Down syndrome caused me to readjust my ideas about merit, accomplishment, and perfection, and to question a society that equates intelligence and autonomy with personhood. This isn’t to say we don’t have high expectations for Henry, and that we don’t value his intellect and the things he has accomplished. But he does things at his own pace and in his own way, and it has been valuable for me to find different ways of appreciating who he is and what he can do.

Henry has also caused me to question the value our society places on independence. In a liberal democracy, personhood is equated with autonomy and self-reliance. Having a child who is disabled forces you to realize the ways we are all dependent on one another, and to appreciate the networks of support that are available to those who need extra help. Before Henry was born, I never wanted to accept help from anyone. Now, I take any help that is offered to me and that, in turn, has made me a more generous and giving person.


YUP: What changes do you hope to see in the medical establishment and educational system with regard to treatment and services offered for people with disabilities? What changes in the world at large?

RA: Having a child with Down syndrome is not a tragedy, and I would like to see doctors receive better training to help prospective parents make decisions about what they hope to get out of having children, and what it might mean to have a person with a disability in the family. Knowing something about the lives of people with genetic disabilities should be required training for all obstetricians, midwives, and pediatric specialists. How can doctors reliably counsel women about prenatal genetic testing if they have no knowledge about what it would be like to have a child with a genetic disability?

As our educational system becomes more inclusive, I look forward to educators learning that children with Down syndrome are as varied in personality and ability as other children. Too often, teachers and school admissions officers assume that a diagnosis tells them all they need to know about a child. Down syndrome becomes an excuse to lower expectations and close off options. Yet many children with Down syndrome are capable of accomplishing a great deal, academically, if they are given the right resources and accommodations. I would like to see an educational system that is better at accommodating the needs of many different kinds of learners so that all children will have the opportunity to succeed and develop to their full potential.

People with disabilities are more visible and have more opportunities than ever before. The self-advocacy movement is teaching people with intellectual disabilities to speak for themselves and to take charge of their own lives. I am heartened at the ongoing push to move people with intellectual disabilities out of institutions and group homes, and to give them opportunities to become members of the community. We need to be sure the resources are there to provide them with adequate support to live according to their full potential.

Henry receives the first finished copy of Raising Henry

Henry receives the first finished copy of Raising Henry

YUP: Do you have advice to offer families who are raising a child with a disability?

RA: Regardless of disability, your child is first and foremost a child, with the same need for love, stimulation, and care as other children. Take the help that is offered to you—we live in a society that still offers tremendous resources for the families of children with disabilities, but often only to those who know to ask. Embark on a program of lifelong education, where you become the foremost expert in your child’s needs. You are your child’s best advocate and you must never let other people—no matter what credentials and training they may have—tell you they know what’s best. At the same time, don’t forget that you are not a full-time teacher, doctor, or social worker for your child. Remember to enjoy your child and allow him or her to be a part of your family!


YUP: What political, social, or medical issues relating to disability concern you most?

RA: Whenever it comes time for belt-tightening, services for the poor and for people with disabilities (often one and the same) are almost always the first to be cut. Our society provides some of the best and most extensive supports for people with disabilities at all stages of life. But those resources are fragile and constantly endangered, so we need to do our utmost to preserve them by being active constituents and advocates.

In terms of medical care, I would like to see more attention on improving quality of life for people with genetic disabilities than in trying to develop genetic tests to eradicate them. The funding for improved genetic testing is grossly disproportionate to funding to improve cognitive function in people with Down syndrome. If genetic disabilities come to be seen as preventable conditions, that will adversely affect the resources available to support people with disabilities and their families.

The trend in the United States has been toward inclusive education, giving children with disabilities the right to learn in the least restrictive environment, often alongside their non-disabled peers. This is a very important development that benefits everyone: children with disabilities learn social and academic skills through the modeling of their peers, while those who are not disabled learn about diversity and tolerance. Genuine inclusion is hard work that requires talented and well-trained teachers. The perpetual underfunding of public education makes it more likely that inclusion will be done inadequately, teaching the wrong lessons to everyone involved.  In order to preserve the very real benefits of inclusive education, we need to be sure our teachers are adequately trained and compensated for the work that they do.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Raising Henry by Rachel Adams

Raising Henry

by Rachel Adams

Giveaway ends September 30, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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