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Detail from General Gordon’s Last Stand, George William Joy, 1885

“The End of General Gordon,” the last of Lytton Strachey’s portraits in Eminent Victorians, is a story governed, at its end, by the telegraph. In a mere eighty pages, the words “telegram” and “telegraph” in their various forms appear thirty-three times, dominating the action as the story—and General Gordon’s life—hurtle to a close. Every turn or advancement of the “plot” is marked by either the presence or absence of a telegram as the situation in the Sudan comes to a head. Gordon sends Lord Baring “a whole flock of telegrams” (229) and “a great pile of telegrams” (240), “pour[ing]” (230) his thoughts into them until it became “clear that the wire between Khartoum and Cairo had been severed” (234). Even once that line is severed, Gordon “fill[s] the empty telegraph forms with the agitations of his spirit, overflowing ever more hurriedly, more furiously” (254). And then, of course, there are the telegrams unread, the telegrams unsent and unwritten, the telegrams that are published in the papers to be read by the public and—only belatedly—by Mr. Gladstone (238). It is through the device of the telegraph—and the approach of modernization it hails—that Strachey thematizes the issue of speed which becomes not only central to the dénouement of the portrait, but to Strachey’s criticism of the Victorians.  Read More

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As I write, this is the third day of the war. That is, for most of us it is. There’s one lady I know who has it worked out that we have been at war for some years now. She is an inveterate radio listener, and whenever she hears static she thinks it’s Germans, communicating with their local spies. Life has been a vivid thing to her, and war a reality for a long while.

                                                           —E. B. White, Intimations, December 1941¹

Between 1850 and the outbreak of World War II, the soundscape of the world changed dramatically. Technology allowed voices to separate from bodies, to be kept on grooved discs, to be sent across continents, across oceans, to be preserved after death. And when the war began brewing—and when it finally burst out—it did so in people’s homes, all thanks to sound. Sound made a “home front” possible, as people gathered around wirelesses in living rooms and kitchens, waiting to hear news from overseas, from the latest battle, from the nations’ leaders—as the war entered their homes. Even before America or Britain had ever entered the war, Hitler had invaded the homes of thousands of citizens through the wireless. Sound technology, in bringing the world closer together, in improving communication, had also brought the war closer to home. Sound completely changed how the war—and the lead-up to it—were experienced, while at the same time creating, as if by extension of is democratizing powers of connection, mass reproduction, and access, a strangely homogeneous sonic experience of the war on the home front. There are the air raid sirens, the strange, still, silent summer afternoons, the “voice of the nation,” but, above all, there is the radio. E. B. White, in his essay “Compost,” refers to the experience of war over the radio (even a war America had not yet joined) as “radio warfare,” and admits that it makes him “edgy” in a way he does not believe direct engagement would. “I am not able to write on a single harmonious theme while jumping up frequently to hear whether freedom is still alive” (White 189), he writes introducing two key elements of the home front’s experience of “radio warfare”: harmony and constant, anxious tension. The passage with which I opened this essay comes from another of White’s essays, written just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. It describes—not without a hint of irony—a woman in his town in Maine who, because of her attachment to the radio, had, unlike the rest of America, “worked out that we have been at war some years now.” White pokes fun at the woman’s fear of spies in the static, but his last observation—that war has been “a reality” to her “a long while” taps into another thread of the experience of the home front: things are not real until the radio has made them so.  Read More

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L’Enfant’s plan for DC
Thoughts on the Chicago World’s Fair and the L’Enfant plan for Washington, D.C. based on Montgomery Schuyler’s “Last Words About the World’s Fair” and John W. Reps’ Monumental Washington:

In reading about the planning and development of Washington, DC and the Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair, I was struck by a series of resonances between them, separated by time and space though they were. Both DC and the World’s fair were meant, at their respective moments of creation, to symbolize aspects of the budding American character. They were symbols of ambition and aspiration, capability and intention, announcing America’s arrival on the world stage and, what’s more, putting America forward as a rival to Europe—in culture, architecture, and capability. And for both, their symbolic significations to some extent eclipsed their realities: the Exposition was built to be torn down, living forever in cultural memory as a dreamlike vision of possibility, while the plan for DC became symbolic on its own, winning praise and attention and even playing a part in inspiring Baron Hausmann’s reworking of Paris, while the city itself lay unfinished and empty for decades, its reality forgotten in the shadow of its glowing plan.

Yet perhaps the most interesting connection between the two, is the manner in which their symbolism was achieved from a design standpoint. While it might be expected that the most logical form for such symbols to take would be one which would be sure to set them apart, to mark them as distinctly “American,” differentiating them from the symbols of the old world they sought to rival and surpass, in actuality both displayed strong design connections to Europe: in D.C. through L’Enfant’s boulevard system—particularly the radial boulevards used around the Capitol and the White House, and at the World’s Fair in Daniel Burnham’s classically influenced style. In fact, it was largely through the appropriation and “Americanization” of elements of European design that DC and the World’s Fair expressed their aspirations of grandeur and their designers made known their “faith in the nation’s ability to rival Europe in power and architectural glory”(Reps 21). Read More

What follows is a rather informal series of impressions of Currey’s biography of Edward Lansdale, the ad-man turned CIA operative who orchestrated Magsaysay’s rise to power in the Philippines and played main advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam.

Edward Lansdale meets with Ngo Dinh Diem in 1954

Cecil B. Currey calls Edward Lansdale the “unquiet” American (and certainly volume never seems to have been a problem for Lansdale—nor has talking out of turn), but perhaps “the ignored American” might have been a more apt moniker for the man Currey claims could have brought the Vietnam war to a close—had anyone bothered to listen to him. In his biography of Lansdale, Currey, in what can only really be called a loving tone, poses a series of “what if?” questions, which leave the reader wondering exactly how far they can trust this biography’s account of the life of the man John F. Kennedy called the American equivalent of James Bond (242). What if Kennedy had listened to Lansdale and fought to keep Diem in power? What if any number of government higher-ups had listened when Lansdale stressed that this war was a People’s War and needed to be won by the Vietnamese, not by American interlopers? What if either Kennedy had listened when Lansdale insisted that Bay of Pigs was a bad idea? I really could go on with the list of “what ifs” Currey brings up forever. It’s clear, reading Currey’s biography, that Lansdale is some kind of personal hero to Currey, though, and as a result it’s a little bit hard to take the incessant lionizing seriously.

Having read only Currey’s version of events, I can’t be sure whether I’m right in thinking that Lansdale couldn’t possibly have been this perfect. Maybe he was. Maybe the pictures painted of him in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and in William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American are unfair as Currey claims. All I know is that Currey’s biography is decidedly one-sided, citing almost wholly the works and opinions of Lansdale’s admirers and almost completely ignoring those of his detractors (and when these last are mentioned, it’s with a tone of pitying condescension for the poor souls who just couldn’t recognize Lansdale’s genius).

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the biography, nor that I don’t like Lansdale. In fact, the sole reason I chose this topic was that I’d found everything I’d heard about Lansdale either hilarious (as in stopping a coup by giving the generals planning it all expenses paid tickets to a resort in Manila hilarious), delightful (recording hundreds of traditional Vietnamese folksongs because he felt they needed to be appreciated), or impressive (marching into McNamara’s office and depositing a load of VC weapons on his desk to illustrate the type of war America’d gotten herself into). I just simply had to keep reminding myself as I read that I was most definitely reading a biased account and that I couldn’t let myself get swept up by Currey’s romantic portrait of an American hero immaculate in every aspect.  Read More

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The weather, recently, really has been rather lovely for ducks and so, of course, rather lovely for me too as nothing really legitimizes my habit of dressing all in black and wearing only boots, boots, and more boots, quite so well as rain and gray skies. The best part of this, too, was probably that it necessitated my buying a pair of Hunter boots (black, matte), which I’ve wanted since who knows when. So. Life is good.

The thing about this weather, though, is that I have even less of an excuse than usual not to work. All I ever want to do is sit bundled in my room (preferably in bed) with a cup of tea and watch the rain so there really should be nothing between me and getting some work done. Except. Yeah. Work.

Point in case: I got home from crew this morning at the bright (well not really) and early hour of 9:30 am and promptly got right back into bed. Whereupon I watched Cléo de 5 à 7 (which I’m lucky enough to have count as work) and then fell asleep. The afternoon proceeded in much the same way: 5 pages of Hincmar’s On the Governance of the Palace, 2 hours of reading this book and sticking things to my wall (which, by the way, is a work of art), 10 0r so pages of POPism (something which no one needs ever—let alone on a peaceful rainy Saturday), and then several hours of doing nothing much. I did manage to go to the gym today, though, which was very productive of me generally, but didn’t really aid the war effort much. (I am speaking, of course, of the war on homework, which I have been waging in the manner of the Carolingians (that is—seasonally) for the last 15 years.)

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A comparative essay dealing with two articles covering different aspects of Victorian Crime: the jury system and treatment of juvenile delinquents.

Quinault, Roland. “Victorian Juries.” History Today 59, no. 5 (May 2009): 47-53.

Shore, Heather. “The Idea of Juvenile Crime in 19th Century England.” History Today 50, no. 6 (June 2000): 21-27.

During the nineteenth century, it was not crime that changed in England, but the way that crime was viewed. With the expansion of the middle class and the subsequent ability of the public to care about people beyond their immediate family, the idea of civic responsibility spread and attitudes towards perpetrators and members of the judicial system, both public and official, shifted. As a result of these changes, legislature became more specific and laws not only more plentiful, but more practical and effective. Heather Shore discusses the role of juvenile delinquency in this time of shifting opinion and legislature, making the point that it was not, as many believe, juvenile offenders who changed in Victorian era England nor their treatment, but the legislature and the nomenclature surrounding them. Similarly, juries were affected by the Victorian specificity of legislature, though, according to Roland Quinault, with significantly little benefit gained from the changes, in contrast to the situation of juvenile delinquents. Both the changes to jury laws and legislature governing the treatment of offenders occurred with the same aim—greater specificity, control, and usefulness, though with different degrees of effect.

Prior to the nineteenth century, juvenile offenders in England were treated much the same as any other offender: there were no laws for the specific governance of youth or youth punishment, there was no limit on the severity of punishment nor on the cause for punishment. Juvenile delinquents were scarcely even recognized as a separate issue. However, in the nineteenth century, amidst a wave of social reform, the increasing number of juvenile offenders was noted and studied. In her article, Shore sites as one of the results of these studies the discovery that the rise in juvenile delinquency was due, at least inpart, to the “existing system of prison discipline” (Shore, 5)—a circumstance that obviously necessitated change.

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All year, my Western Civ teacher has been reminding us about Mystery Day. It’s been on the calendar all year and in the weeks leading up to it she would say at the end of class “Don’t forget Mystery Day’s coming up! I wonder what it could be!” She’d even end emails to us in this fashion: “MYSTERY DAY!!!????!!!!???? NEXT WEEK!!!????!!!”

I got curious about it the day before. And I spent the night before wondering if it would be something really cool and historyish and then trying to figure out what that would be ideally or if it would be totally lame.

The day of, I think I was the only one in the grade who didn’t know. I think my brain refused to make the connection between people walking around with pillows and Mystery Day. Well, it had just never entered my mind that Mystery Day would be anything close to what it was. I kind of thought it would be like the day we got to handle the facsimile of the Canterbury Tales. What I didn’t expect, even up to the second I stepped into the room, was two sewing machines, about 40 yards of the weirdest fabrics on this planet and the next, and a bunch of boys from the period before mine desperately trying to pin St. Patrick’s Day themed fabrics into semblances of boxers.

Um.

What???

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