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2013

#10 Richard Wilbur “The Lilacs”


I’m always kind of suspicious at poems with weird formation on the page. Not because I don’t think it’s interesting and useful, but at the same time, if it doesn’t change the way one reads the poem why do it? It’s like those weird enjambments or ending a stanza in the middle of a sentence. If one is still going to read the line as a whole statement then it doesn’t matter how “interesting” it looks, the enjambment doesn’t mean anything and it’s just putting on airs.
I feel like we treat the writing of a poem as a thing in itself without realizing the purpose. We write poems so that people can read them correctly without us being there and line breaks, punctuation, stanza breaks, etc. are all so that the reader can know what this poem is supposed to sound like. It’s basically sheet music. If a song doesn’t stop in the middle there’s no reason a staff would break off in the middle and start again on the next line.


So I don’t know how I feel about “The Lilacs”. I can see that it may be a sort of representation of the lilacs being “in staggered file”, but I guess I would have to hear the poem read to know if that’s truly important, though the left side of the poem can be read as a poem in and of itself, so that heartens me to see the division of the poem create an effect that has some rime and reason.


Those laden lilacs
                        at the lawn’s end
Came stark, spindly,
                     and in staggered file,
Like walking wounded
                        from the dead of winter.
We watched them waken
                     in the brusque weather
To rot and rootbreak,
                     to ripped branches,
And I saw them shiver
                    as the memory swept them
Of night and numbness
                    and the taste of nothing.
Out of present pain
                       and from past terror
Their bullet-shaped buds
                    came quick and bursting,
As if they aimed
                       to be open with us!
But the sun suddenly
                    settled about them,
And green and grateful
                       the lilacs grew,
Healed in that hush,
                    that hospital quiet.
These lacquered leaves
                    where the light paddles
And the big blooms
                    buzzing among them
Have kept their counsel,
                      conveying nothing
Of their mortal message,
                   unless one should measure
The depth and dumbness
                   of death’s kingdom
By the pure power
                   of this perfume.


Review: The Modern Researcher

The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff. Belmont
Reviewed Johana-Marie Williams

The background of both authors of The Modern Researcher is (fittingly) as historians, and Jacques Barzun is perhaps better known for his contribution to the history of education. It is obvious that his focus in education informed the writing of The Modern Researcher, as there is much value to be had in this book to students and scholars in other disciplines and at other stages of education. Sadly, Barzun passed away in October 2012, but his contribution of this text is invaluable to the education of history.[1]
Henry Graff's background is also in history, his most recognized works--other than the modern researcher--being The Tuesday Cabinet: Deliberation and Decision on Peace and War under Lyndon B. Johnson and The Presidents: A Reference History. He is currently a professor emeritus at Columbia University.[2]
Barzun and Graff’s goal in The Modern Researcher is to  prepare students of history for research by giving them the tools to organize their research, organize their own thoughts, make imaginative but fact-based leaps, and to examine their own thinking and writing for flaws in logic and communication. The book is broken into two parts (“Principles and Methods of Research” and “Writing Speaking and Publishing”) with seven chapters each. It is also peppered with well-chosen anecdotes from the lives and works of real historians meant to exemplify both good and bad tendencies in historical writing and research. One of the strengths of the text, the stories give evidence to the prescriptions given and keep the reader engaged in what could have been a dry three hundred page list of the does and don’ts of historical methodology. This use also gives tangible examples to the reader on some of the major points of the text, such as the seamless use of quotations from sources.
One of the weaknesses of The Modern Researcher is it’s… lack of modernity, particularly regarding research in internet databases and the overall attitude toward updates in technology. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the newest edition was published in 2004 (nearly decade ago), however even in 2004 references to “so-called tablet computers”[3] and word-processing software that “shows only half a page at a time”[4] would have been dated.  Also, the availability of other technological resources needs to be updated to reflect the advancements of the last ten years, both of the technology available and of the average historian’s access to archived research. This is not to say that all or even most original research can be done online but it is to say that the somewhat skeptical attitude towards using computers, internet resources, and other technologies flies in the face of what is available for and what is expected of the historical researcher today.
The most valuable parts of this book, in my estimation, are chapters two and eight: "The ABC of Technique" and "Organizing: Paragraph, Chapter, and Part", respectively. Both chapters are at the beginning of their respective parts and are examples of front-loading the text with the indispensable information. While it is necessary the other topics of The Modern Researcher be addressed for the book to operate at all as a complete text, there are other sources that would better and more completely address citations, translating, computer usage, etc. However, the idea that the “a note is a first thought,” was revolutionary for me, and—I believe—will affect other students in a similar manner, once grasped.[5]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
One of the most difficult challenges of any writer is researching in an organized manner then organizing that research in the way that best lends itself to forming a coherent first draft and aiding in further revision. I have struggled with this undertaking in both my creative and scholarly writing, and I now believe I have a much better grasp proper note-taking, and would even suggest that at the least these two chapters be introduced much earlier in the college curriculum to students of all disciplines, preferably during freshman year.
While needing some updating once again, maybe with some input from younger researchers more experienced and comfortable with new technology, The Modern Researcher continues to be a definitive resource for students of history that should perhaps be used earlier to give students a solid foundation in the art and science of historical research.




[1] New York Times, 25 October 2012 (website)
[2] Columbia University. “Department of History”. (website)
[3] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher. 25
[4] Ibid. 294
[5]Ibid. 26

Review: A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi

A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi. David H. Jackson, Jr. Review by Johana-Marie Williams.

In A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine, David H. Jackson seeks to expound on the inner-workings of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine by discussing the life of Charles Banks, Washington’s “lieutenant” in Mississippi; one of the leaders who reported directly to Washington and forwarded his mission of constructionalism through both economic and political means in the state and nationally.
Jackson defines constructionalism as the effort to “construct policies and programs to deal with the imposition and problems of racism, rather than react with the threat of retaliation,” and “constructing a community and carving out a space in a country inclined to keep them at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder.”[1]
Jackson’s thesis is that Washington’s Tuskegee Machine has been somewhat maligned by its picture as an organization full of ruthless scheming and unscrupulous machinations, and he states that he will counter that by showing the inner-workings of the Tuskegee Machine, and highlighting their accomplishments which could not have happened without some cohesive element. He also notes that Charles Banks has been neglected as a historical figure in general, despite his rank in Washington’s organization and the relative successes he achieved in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Charles Banks was an entrepreneur who built his wealth in the mercantile business, and used that wealth to fund many ventures such as the Bank of Mound Bayou, the Mound Bayou Oil Cotton Mill, and in philanthropic endeavors such as funding a twenty five dollar annual scholarship to Tuskegee.[2]
Jackson is definitely successful in the second proposition, as I learned much about the politics of Mississippi at the time and how Banks was able to use his influence to really establish Mound Bayou and establish programs and business ventures to the benefit of citizens and even to other African Americans and Whites outside of the city and outside of that time.[3] In particular, I found impressive and revealing the establishment of public education, including the Mound Bayou Consolidated Negro School, and Bank’s lobbying to several presidential administrations for positions for those considered friends of the Tuskegee Machine and/or useful to their ends. Despite popular rendition of history, I was reminded that there was never really a time or place that Black people were using what agency they had to advance themselves and each other and were not fighting more.
However, I would not say that Jackson is completely successful in his efforts to lessen the image of the Tuskegee Machine as a somewhat political and underhanded organization. The frequent power plays between Banks and Isaiah Montgomery; between Banks and his brother-in-law, Eugene Booze; and between Bank’s friend and Booker T. Washington’s secretary Emmett Jay Scott and Washington’s successor Robert Moton, still lend credence to the idea that the organization was plagued by warring personalities. It does not help that the organization seemed to attract charlatans, embezzlers, and cheats though that may have been more a consequence of the Tuskegee Machine being a Negro movement with some pull in the business and political sphere but also a lot of vulnerabilities. From Jackson’s account it is obvious that Washington played a key role not only as leader but as a bridge between all the warring personalities and opposing ambitions and that his passing in 1915 left the organization in general and Banks in particular more vulnerable than before.
What I can and do agree with Jackson on is that Charles Banks’ political and economic efforts in Mound Bayou cannot be counted as a loss despite the difficulties encountered. We can never know what history might look like without those years of protection and freedom for African Americans to vote, to build businesses and family, to have an oasis from persecution. What we can know is that some decades later a young man with his family moved to Mound Bayou to become a salesman for Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, and that that young man would eventually join the Regional Council for Negro Leadership and a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Medgar Evers.[4] A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine shows us that even aborted efforts (which not all of Banks enterprises were) at establishing an independent Black city in the spirit of constructionism can and has borne fruit for future movements for Black liberation.



[1] Jackson, David H.. A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine, 42-43
[2] Ibid., 60, 105
[3] ibid., 140
[4] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (June 24, 2013). "NAACP History: Medgar Evers". naacp.org; Wesleyan University (June 24, 2013). "Medgar Evers: July 2, 1925-June 12, 1963". wesleyan.edu.



Review: The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xii + 151, $15.95. Reviewed by Johana-Marie Williams.
John Lewis Gaddis states four purposes for writing The Landscape of History: to acknowledge those who contributed to his work, both students and preceding scholars; to sort through his own knowledge base and ideas that he developed during his 2001 George Eastman Visiting Professorship at Oxford; to update the field of history on developments predicted by Marc Bloch and E. H. Carr, heretofore under-acknowledged; and to encourage fellow historians to find creative and “elegant” ways to explain and justify their methods of research with each other, with their students, and to the rest of academia.[1]
His thesis on history is that an ideal metaphor for the past is that of a landscape both static and knowable, but seeming to changing whenever and however historians come to measure it. History is likened to a map, a reduced and refocused presentation of the past. The image and construction of maps change, even of the same patch of land, with a change in a map’s purpose and audience and so does history, in Gaddis’ view.[2]
Historians accomplish this task through selectivity, simultaneity, and scale—which are also the tools of the mapmaker: they choose to isolate at a certain part or person of history for examination; they look at other people and events that intersect with their subject of study to determine the cumulative effect of those influences; and they use as a tool of narrative a singular occurrences to compare to the whole historical event, moving in scale from small to large, to make their ideas better understood.[3]
The point of this metaphor is to respond to the question of whether or not social sciences in general--and history, in particular--is an actual science. Gaddis makes an ultimately convincing case that the question should instead be, “Which sciences are historical?” That is, which of the “hard” sciences use similar methods of inductive and deductive reasoning in their research and making theoretical leaps because of the inability to effectively reproduce experiments to prove their theories? The answer is, of course, quite a few, including astronomy, geology, some aspects of physics and medicine, etc.
According to Gaddis, the difference between the methodologies of historians and that of other social scientists is that their job is not to predict the future, as it often is for sociologists, political scientists, etc. To do this they need constants, generalizations, variables that repeat themselves in a predictable manner, thus a reductionist approach to human behavior.[4] Because the historian’s job is to better understand the past (why it this happened here and that happened there), his or her goal is to proliferate the variables of the past, and, as previously stated, see how they affect each other. This leads to an ecological approach that tries to understand the many parts of the whole and on uses reductionism as “a stepping stone toward synthesis,” Basically, reductions becomes a method of identification of the individual variables, on the way to examining how the variables interact in their naturally occurring systems.[5] Gaddis reiterates that is it is not the job of the historian to predict the future, but the historian’s methods often produce better results in trying to do so because, “Historians… have long concerned themselves with the interactive behavior of masses, institutions, and individuals.”[6] Both methods are scientific, but they have different purposes.
How can the methods of history and the other social sciences be reconciled? Gaddis looks to natural science and mathematics for reconciliation in the forms of chaos theory and complexity theory, specifically looking at fractals: repeating patterns in nature that produce unique shapes, organisms, and events over time. Here we see a reference to the scale Gaddis mentions earlier; historians “zooming in and out between the macroscopic and microscopic perspectives: what links these together is a kind of self-similarity across scale.”[7] Thus by taking into account the many variables of human experience, social scientists may not the exact date and time of future events, or who all the players may be, but they can more accurately predict the shape those events may take.[8]
I found The Landscape of History to be engaging; the breadth of Gaddis’ knowledge to be refreshing; and his later treatise on the obligation of historians to make moral judgments, even as they commit as best as possible to objectivity and intellectual honesty to be necessary. The idea that historians should not pass judgment on individuals being studied comes from a place of privilege. E. H. Carr’s question of whether or not the “horrors and brutalities and persecutions… are…things on which one ought to concentrate if one wants to get to the ultimate significance of the revolution”[9] rules out the idea that those “horrors and brutalities” have historical significance in and of themselves, that they matter to the story of humanity as much as—perhaps more so—the nitty-gritty details of Stalin’s life, theories, and other aspects of his rule. This kind of detachment from the silences of history can only be afforded by those who do not see themselves as affected--especially, negatively affected—by them. Fortunately, Gaddis offers an alternative of taking into account both the time and mores of the subject and the historian to effectively “triangulate the past.”[10]



[1] xi
[2] 5, 32-33, 46
[3] 22-25,
[4] 54-56
[5] 61
[6] 85
[7] 83
[8] 86-87
[9] 127, speaking in reference to Stalin and the Soviet Union
[10] 128

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