Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Seattle General Strike by Robert L. Friedheim.

North America’s first general strike was notable for its’ peaceful character and orderliness. For five days in 1919, despite shutting down all of Seattle, “not a single striker or antistrike partisan was arrested on any charge related to the strike. In fact, the usual police docket of about one hundred cases a day fell to about thirty during the strike.” (Friedheim, p. 125). In addition, strike organizers were careful to maintain essential services in the city. “No one starved or lacked heat; no children had to do without milk; no sick or injured were denied hospital care.” (Friedheim, p. 126).

Friedheim’s The Seattle General Strike is a thorough study of this remarkable event. The author makes sure his readers understand the zeitgeist of that time period, the structure of the Seattle American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the issues of the strike. While the reading may be at times ponderous, one will obtain an in-depth understanding acquired through toil over the details.

Surprisingly, in spite of meticulous illustration of the facts, Friedheim ignores the important and glaring issue of racism within the Seattle unions. He mentions racial issues regarding lynching (Friedheim, p. 7) and voting (Friedheim, p. 168). He even discusses participation of Japanese unions (Friedheim, p. 124). These inclusions make his omission more perplexing. The relationship of African American workers to Seattle labor was complex. As noted by Jon Wright, “many African American workers…were barred from entering unions” managed by Seattle’s AFL. Conversely, the International Workers of the World (IWW), who actively participated in the strike, “did not discriminate on the basis of race.” During the strike, 300 self-organized African Americans from the longshoremen’s union participated, while others hoped that the strike would lead to an open (non-union) shop in the shipyards that would permit African American employment.**

Friedheim, while clearly liberal, is not starry-eyed. He criticizes the Seattle AFL’s “unqualified support of the Bolshevik Revolution” as equal to their reactionary “opponents in depth of feeling and lack of objectivity.” (Friedheim, p. 16). National AFL vociferously opposed revolution. Above all, Friedheim is a pragmatist. Statements and actions which he sees as counter-productive to labor’s goals are disapproved. “Leaflets urging workers to confiscate the means of production,” generated independently of the Strike Committee, are represented as frightening the public.  (Friedheim, p. 101). “Radicals,” who generate such literature, are juxtaposed against “Progressives,” presented as the primary organizers who must logistically counter such propaganda.

In his conclusions, Professor Friedheim lists the successes and failures of the strike. While presenting the image of an effective striking organization maintaining peace and order in the city, he patiently delineates their failures in terms of obtaining the $6.00 wage demanded by shipyard workers and losing the propaganda war with the established Seattle business and political machinery. After the strike, 39 workers are rounded-up on sedition charges that do not stick in court. But what does stick is the perception that “the strike was an unsuccessful Bolshevist revolution…Northwest lore that has persisted.” (Friedheim, p. 147). He even claims that “the Seattle general strike helped condition the American people to accept extreme measures against aliens, dissenters and left-wingers, in what would become a year-long Red Scare.” (Friedheim, p. 169).  Here the author fails to put the strike in historical perspective: The US public had begun fearing Bolshevik revolution with the victory of the Russian Red Army in 1917. There is a trajectory from that event to the first Red Scare, which was a direct result of coordinated leftist bombings through the mail on June 2, 1919. The general strike may have minimally reinforced citizen’s fears of Bolshevism. But the Russian Revolution and the 1919 bombings were perceived by the public as far more tangible threats.  It was in this atmosphere that the peacefulness of the first general strike in US history was painted-over as a Bolshevik revolution. Even today, the memory of its positive attributes is resurrected only in the minds of intrepid readers of obscure, dusty books.

Friedheim, Robert L. The Seattle General Strike. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

** Wright, Jon. "Seattle General Strike: Seattle’s African American Community." Seattle General Strike Project. 1999. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <>.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Intertwined Lives. Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. By Lois Banner.

Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were two of the most important influences on anthropology during their lifetimes. Many know of Mead’s popular writings in this subject area, particularly her Coming of Age in Samoa. She had an important impact on the US populations views during a time when news agencies and popular magazines went to experts for opinions on events and phenomena, rather than using a now more prevalent “man-on-the-street” approach to reporting. Fewer people are familiar with Ruth Benedict, who has been recognized by most academics as the successor of Franz Boas (founder of modern US anthropology), and the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association. The fact that the careers of these two women began before women had the vote, during a time when many of their colleagues thought of women as mentally inferior to men, is a testament to their determination and ability.

The relationship between these two women is fascinating for their individual brilliance, as well as their intellectual influence on each other. Banner spends a great deal of time discussing how they communicated around their ideas and edited each other’s work. In addition, the author discusses the people, (friends and foes), who surrounded these two women as part of the social circle of international anthropology. The depiction of this circle provides a rich portrait of an expanding field of human exploration and the personalities that molded it.

Prior to Intertwined Lives, there was some controversy concerning whether or not Mead and Benedict had a sexual relationship. While there are still some deniers, Banner’s study is “the first biographical account of the lives of these two women to draw on all their papers.” This author had access to love letters that previous generations of researchers did not. Large portions of their private writing had been “restricted until their close friends and associates had died,” which is a standard practice. (Banner, p. ix). Professor Banner quotes passages of letters like this where Benedict writes “How little the lovemaking solved in our feeling for each other,” which clearly show a sexual component to the relationship. (Banner, p. 272). While the author discusses Mead and Benedict’s five year sexual relationship, she does not present it as the central feature of their bond. It is one element which occurred early in a deep friendship that spanned 24 years, involving a great deal of personal support and impelling mutual scholarly influence.

At times, Banner is too psychoanalytical. She states that Benedict “felt peaceful with Margaret, who rested her “like a padded chair and a fireplace.” Our biographer adds “that image suggests domestic tranquility, but it also suggests domination, for it was fathers who sat in armchairs in front of fireplaces.” (Banner, p. 185). Benedict’s feeling of tranquility is clear. Banner injects her own Freudian gloss which has questionable merit. This over-analysis is not limited to the relationship between the two subjects. Professor Banner later describes a painting in the childhood home of Margaret’s second husband, Gregory Bateson; a watercolor by Blake that shows Eve with the Serpent and Satan: “being an angel, Satan has no genitals of his own. Did Gregory think of himself as a devil with women, as an ambiguous male who was both powerless and all-powerful?” (Banner, p. 346). Okay, Bateson did dream about this watercolor for years, but it would have been a disturbing, memorable image in any child’s home. The author’s interpretation is a reach. Freudian psychoanalysis was a fashion during the lives of these scientists. They spent many hours and letters discussing the psyche with intricate fabrication. But we do not have to. The factual information is enough.

Anyone expecting these independent female leaders in anthropology to have 21st Century notions concerning women or LGBT people, are in for a disappointment. While neither viewed being lesbian or gay as harmful to society, they both saw this characteristic as abnormal. “In Mead’s cultural scheme, homosexuals are more maladjusted than heterosexuals” because they have given-up “the drive to procreate.” (Banner, p. 356). Benedict saw “homosexuality…as an abnormality shaped by society.” (Banner, p. 274). There were a few individuals who thought that being LGB or T was equal in health to heterosexuality (Magnus Hirschfeld in the 1890s comes to mind), but they were a tiny minority. Mead’s views on women deserve special attention for their controversial nature. While “feminists of the 1970s…claim her as their forerunner,” Betty Friedan “identified her as the architect of the back-to-the-home movement of the 1950s.” (Banner, p. 364). Banner, herself a professor of History, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, reports both the progressive and regressive opinions of her two anthropologists with the forgiving equanimity of a historian who understands that we are all a product of our times and cultures.

As a responsible biographer, Lois Banner has marshaled a voluminous quantity of material by and about her subjects. It is undoubtedly more demanding to create a dual biography, rather than focusing on one individual, but the rewards are also great. In addition to creating a unique record of a relationship, revealing the immense intellectual spark that they collectively produced, there is the value of comparative research. In the author’s own words, “Benedict and Mead both believed that the comparative anthropology of several societies offered insights into all of them; similarly, comparing the biographies of two individuals can shed light on each of them.” (Banner, p. 11). Banner shares this complexity of information with an elegant style as fluid as conversation, intertwining their stories as these two women intertwined their lives.

Banner, Lois W. Intertwined Lives. Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters by John Gross.

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters is a history of literary criticism in Great Britain. A pause is necessary to observe the overproduction of criticism. We not only have critics whose purpose it is to examine, in excruciating detail, the poetry and prose which should be dedicated to pleasure; but we also have an additional layer of historian critics like Gross, who study past critics, who studied the writers.  John Gross is aware of this professional excess. He asks “how can anyone who tries to keep up with Wordsworthian studies find time to read Wordsworth?” This reviewer admits that he is not making the process any less confounded. His brain twists as he critically reviews a book, which critically reviews the critics, who critically reviewed the writers of literature.  In spite of this problem, it is the author’s job, as a literary historian, to record and interpret history. The lives of the critics and the development of the British periodical press is history. Additionally, it is the job of the reviewer to review books. So, amusingly and vertiginously, on we go. Of note, some social and political criticism is included by the historic critics explored here, but the primary object of study, in this tome, is literature.

John Gross offers a chronological trek of mini-biographies, which begin in 1802 with Lord Jeffrey of the “Edinburgh Review,” and end in 1936 with F.R. Leavis. His epilogue quickly catches the reader up to Gross’s “present time,” 1969, when Rise and Fall was published. Be warned that this is an advanced course in literary criticism. For most general non-fiction and history enthusiasts, (this reviewer included), the history of literary criticism is unexplored terrain. A novice is expected to tread water or sink. But, as someone who has gone through the process, this is not a bad way to learn. It’s much like getting lost in a foreign city. As long as one walks unafraid through the unknown, and is open to experiencing an entirely new area, the opportunity for learning is great. If this form of self-education appeals to a reader, then she will find, upon looking-up from Gross’s exploration, that many hours have been lost in the reverie of discovering history previously unmapped by the explorer. Thankfully, we have our internet as a compass. Gross does cover well-known writers (Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, etc.) but one will come across numerous obscure personalities or publications which will require a google.

Apologies to my feminist readers: the subjects are exclusively “men” of letters. There was, between 1800 and 1930, a strong women’s periodical press in Britain. There were women writing as journalists and critics. But Gross does not cover them. To make the situation as comical as it may be infuriating to those conversant regarding gender discrimination, women are almost exclusively mentioned in conjunction with the men in their lives. Virginia Woolf is seen primarily as the daughter of Leslie Stephen. Katherine Mansfield is only mentioned as John Middleton Murray’s lover. Queenie Leavis doesn’t even get a first name, let alone a mini-biography. She was a formidable critic in her own right who is relegated to the anonymity of being a “Mrs. Leavis.”Only George Eliot is praised as a genius writer. Even so, she does not rate a mini-biography for her critical works. The excuse of “well…it was 1969” is not a good one. Our relegated Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, on women and writing, in 1929. “The Woman Question,” or women’s place in the literary world, had been debated in the academy since the 1950s, then radically advocated since 1962 with the publication of The Feminine Mystique. John Gross could hardly been unaware of these trends. There is a 1991 revision of Rise and Fall, to which I do not have access. It purports to include “updates on several literary careers”* If a reader can tell me that it also includes a highly expanded coverage of the role of women, I will happily withdraw my objection.

While the absence of women diminishes the study, it does not diminish the individual portraits or the author’s able coloring of lives. Alice Walker once described her process with The Color Purple where she spent a summer sitting in a field, calling up the images of her characters in her mind and having conversations with them as a way to get to know them. In this way, she said, her “summer passed in a blaze of joy.” Similarly, if one appreciates being introduced to obscure and idiosyncratic critics, their reading will also pass in a blaze of joy.

Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969.

*"The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800 First Paperback Edition Edition." The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800 (9781566630009): John Gross: Books., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2015.