The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

dems in pennsylvania has a very heartening post today on the surging fortunes of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania. The money shot: according to Rasmussen, Casey leads Santorum by 23 points, up 10 points over the last month (since the primary).

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

reading someone's dissertation

I don't usually do it (unless I'm on the committee), but I read this weekend an entry in Routledge's "Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory: Outstanding Dissertations" series. Adam McKible wrote THE SPACE AND PLACE OF MODERNISM: THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION, LITTLE MAGAZINES, AND NEW YORK as his dissertation at North Carolina, and it's a solid piece of work, although certainly not one that'll hold much interest to a general audience. It combines literary close reading and social history, looking at how four important New York little magazines wrote about the Russian Revolution. It's solid, although I find myself less and less interested in close reading and wishing that McKible had done a little more reception study. That is, if he's going to make an argument about how these little magazines put across an argument about what 1917 meant to their little audiences, I'm only partially interested in what those magazines said. I'm also interested in what the audiences GOT from their magazines. Who read these magazines? THE MESSENGER certainly had a smaller circulation than THE DIAL; how much smaller? Did their audiences overlap? How did the audiences talk back, in letters to the editor? It's one thing to close-read a text, and McKible does this admirably and with a great degree of insight and sophistication. But what effect did that text have on its audience? I'd like to see more discussion of this (although it is, admittedly, very difficult: how can one quantify that?).

Friday, May 26, 2006


Is it just our house, or has telemarketing spiked notably over the last two weeks or so? We've gone from months of receiving at most a call a day to ten or more calls daily. (Yes, we're finally on both the federal and PA do-not-call lists, but those won't take effect for a while.) But it's become a spam-like plague at our number.

Here are the numbers that have come up when these people call. Anyone else getting repeated calls from these numbers?




800-881-6980 (an educational loan consolidator)


888-547-4762 (a recorded call from "Scott at Century Financial"; there's a discussion board on this one)


We get it, we get it, Santorum doesn't actually live here. The Post-Gazette really, really wants us to remember this. Of all of the reasons to vote him out of office, this seems like the most demagogic and unpersuasive. (Of course, Penn Hills still had to pay for Santorum's children's charter-school education.)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

the new era begins

Trader Joe's is coming to Pittsburgh! It'll be located in the former Wheeler Paints building in that East Liberty Station strip mall. Lots of competition there; Shop n Save and the Iggle both have (crappy) outlets right there.

OMG. We have been dreaming of this. TJ's was one of the few tolerable aspects of living in LA. Since we've been here, we've had to get our TJ's fix on trips to Washington or Philly. If you don't know why people--especially lefty anticonsumerists like ourselves--get so worked up about TJ's, Andy Bowers of Slate explains it here.

The opening of the Pittsburgh location certainly isn't going to generate the massive amounts of tumult and comment and celebration and inevitable backlash that the recent opening of a TJ's on Union Square in New York engendered, but hey, it makes Pittsburgh more liveable and it'll certainly make good money for the company. Pittsburghers are hungry for non-crappy retail, and when the Whole Foods that opened in 2002 it reportedly became the company's most profitable outlet in terms of sales per square foot. (I couldn't find this stat on WF's own site, but they did state in a conference call that "Our new stores in New Orleans and Pittsburgh have performed particularly well, currently falling into our top 25 stores based on year to date average weekly sales." And when people realize that TJ's is good, interesting, and cheap, they may draw off some of those WF customers.

Because of our state's bizarre liquor laws, though, no Two-Buck Chuck at this TJ's.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

the best american novel

Is apparently Morrison's BELOVED, at least according to the NEW YORK TIMES. Smart money was on this Barbaro-like heavy favorite (and Morrison's horse didn't break its leg out of the gate) and it paid off. But a few observations:

DeLillo's UNDERWORLD isn't that great. Reading it, I felt like DeLillo was saying "I need to write a Don DeLillo book, but a really long and self-important one. WHITE NOISE and THE NAMES were too short; LIBRA was an adapted screenplay, not an original story." Sometimes the short books are better, like Meghan O'Rourke says in Slate. I love the big encyclopedic work (ULYSSES, V., JR, even INFINITE JEST) but I think they're interesting because they're often flawed. UNDERWORLD didn't feel flawed; it felt forced.

Look, I like Philip Roth as much as most. And I think he's going to be regarded as one of the greats (Nadine Gordimer seemed to suggest that in her review of EVERYMAN). But seriously: 6 of 25? And who really thinks that THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is one of his best? OPERATION SHYLOCK, yes. AMERICAN PASTORAL, yeah.

I'm glad someone recognized that McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN is his best. But I don't think THE BORDER TRILOGY books compare. They're poorly plotted; their strength is language and atmosphere, but beyond that they are a little thin.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


RIchard Hofstadter is one of the most important American historians of the past fifty years. THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS and especially ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE are his best-known works, and I finally (in my belated program to autodidacticize myself into an American Studies M.A.) got around to reading ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. It's not eye-opening in any way; it doesn't take a genius historian to argue that American culture and society have strong, and frequently dominant, strains of anti-intellectualism, and although it was the Eisenhower-Adlai Stevenson race that provided Hofstadter's contemporary example of anti-intellectualism in politics it's pretty easy to lay Kerry-Bush or Gore-Bush on top of that without really having to change anything. Hofstadter's book is remarkable for its easy way with a broad spectrum of American life. It shows great familiarity with the Puritan clergy, with Dewey's education theories and their implementation, with the Jacksonian revolution in American politics. I realize that he must have had a small army of research assistants, but even at that, even if he's just the orchestrator, he put together a pretty seamless book. It's one of those books where I feel like I didn't have my mind changed in any way--I certainly believe that anti-intellectualism is powerful in American life, is dominant today and has been through most of our history, and I also could have provided the broad outlines of anti-intellectualism in evangelical religion, populist politics, and American public education--but I feel like Hofstadter's book is so well-researched, so exhaustive and comprehensive, that I do feel like I've learned a great deal even though I still know what I knew before (if that makes any sense).

No historic trend, such as anti-intellectualism, is ever completely dominant, and it's important to see it today as a rhetorical device meant to appeal to the American polity. Now, I have no doubts that George W is an anti-intellectual, that all of his "I don't read" self-presentation is actually true, but it's just as true that he's populated his administration with a bunch of intellectuals, pretentious Ivy Leaguers and U. Chicago types like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, and the like. Bush is no Huey Long, and couldn't have gotten where he is if he was.

Hofstadter's views on American anti-intellectualism--his clear, well-reasoned, and utterly sensible explanation of its history and contemporary manifestations--are frequently cited today. In one example, Todd Gitlin, one of the most important of today's links between the New York Intellectuals, the 1960s New Left, and leftists of today, wrote an article in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION just after W was elected in 2000, predictably if accurately seeing Bush's election as confirmation of the continuing validity of Hofstadter's ideas. And it's not just his ideas on anti-intellectualism that keep his name coming up in the conversation. In fact, his insights on the "paranoid style" of American politics are probably even more often brought up (the original 1864 article that led to the book is available here)--here's a article on the moronic "war on Christmas" canard that uses Hofstadter.

Anti-intellectualism, ironically (or perhaps not), is disturbingly powerful these days on university campuses. A University of Montana professor bemoans it here, and the WASHINGTON TIMES--the WASHINGTON TIMES!!! Rev. Moon's organ!--even sees anti-intellectualism in Harvard's recent ouster of Lawrence Summers from his post as president.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


As I plan my fall graduate course in modernism, I've been reading both texts of the time (Fitzgerald, Woolf, and so on) and secondary sources on the period. Recently I finished Michael North's READING 1922: A RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE MODERN, which he published in 1999. (North is also the author of the classic study THE DIALECT OF MODERNISM.) In READING 1922, North is primarily interested in performing a type of reception study/contextualization of the works of high modernism of that year (ULYSSES and THE WASTE LAND), but he spends very little time actually talking about them. Rather, he focuses on popular works of the day and on other, often-ignored intellectual and cultural developments. He pays close attention to works by Willa Cather, Wittgenstein, Bronislaw Malinowski, Charlie Chaplin, and others, but also has really done his research and brings to light some forgotten gems, such as the serially published work PEOPLES OF ALL NATIONS, a pictorial supplement to Alfred, Lord Northcliffe's newspapers that people could collect and then have bound. North's larger argument is one that I think most people accept by now--that modernism should not be understood as representing High Culture on one side of the "great divide" with Low/Popular Culture, but rather that in its time modernism's innovations (which readers now see as intentional obscurity and difficulty) were read as being influenced by or even advancing such ominous trends of the low culture as "syncopation," the breakdown of Victorian gender identity, and a willingness to appreciate popular entertainments such as burlesque, movies, and music-hall performance (as in Eliot's essay "Marie Lloyd").

The book is vastly impressive for the breadth of its research: North is equally comfortable close-reading the best-sellers of 1922, drawing on the biographical details of writers like Lawrence and Cather and Hemingway, alluding to technological developments such as sky-writing, and intertwining all of this with the larger social and intellectual innovations of the day (the triumph of fieldwork as the dominant mode of doing ethnography, for example, or the invention of the field of public relations by Edward Bernays, or the move to put a quota on Jewish students at Harvard). I'd like to use this book with my students as an example (like Eric Sundquist's fantastic TO WAKE THE NATIONS: RACE IN THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LITERATURE) of literary-cultural studies at its best, but I'm almost afraid that it's too intimidation. It sure is to me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


I just finished Kevin Chong's first novel, BAROQUE-A-NOVA, which I decided to read after reading Chong's NEIL YOUNG NATION a few weeks back. The novel is good: it's definitely a first novel, but fortunately it ISN'T a heartfelt retelling of the author's youth (or I don't think). There's a strong Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY) influence in it, but it isn't slavishly derivative, either. It's the story of an eighteen-year-old Canadian boy, the child of a very popular singing duo of absent parents. As the novel opens the boy's mother dies in Thailand and the book retells the following week. It's quite funny at times (Richard, the German TV producer is especially sharp). I'm looking forward to Chong's next novel.

mother's day

I just can't say enough good things about two newish Pittsburgh institutions, the Komen Race for the Cure and the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. This Mother's Day our family took part in/visited both. The race is a 5k run/walk and a one-mile walk, and although I wasn't all that motivated this rainy morning I did manage to get myself down there (via bicycle, to avoid parking hell) and once I saw the tens of thousands of people waiting to take part in the race or walk I was energized. (Two members of my family are survivors, so it's now an obligation at least to give money to the Komen Foundation, but we try to actually get down for the race and have done so in Austin, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.) It was a good race, too many people in Schenley Park to actually get a good start and a low time but it's a fun race. I like it almost as much as the Run Around the Square in Regent Square.

Coming home, I realized that a rainy spring day, a restless 2 1/2 year old, and a small house were going to end up driving me crazy, so I proposed that we have Mother's Day brunch at a deli and then spend an hour or so at the Children's Museum over on the North Side. First of all, that Allegheny Center area is just an interesting neighborhood--old Allegheny and the Mexican War Streets have beautiful architecture, and the buildings comprising the Museum and its vicinity (especially the spectacular Allegheny Regional Branch of the Carnegie Library, which is closed indefinitely "due to lightning." There weren't any special exhibitions at the Museum (like the Arthur exhibition that closed recently), but it's got tons of interactive stuff for a fidgety 2 1/2 year old.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Two Christmases ago my brother-in-law lent us his copy of Maureen Dowd's BUSHWORLD on CDs. At that time--just a month after his re-election--I couldn't face it. But the President has obliged me by spending the last eighteen months sabotaging what had seemed like an unbeatable Presidency (literally "unbeatable," if you believe Mark Crispin Miller's FOOLED AGAIN, as I do), and so last month I decided that I could finally face it.

I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn right away that this wasn't really a book about the Bushes; it's a collection of Dowd's NY TIMES columns about George W., often in unflattering comparison to his father (whom Dowd seems genuinely to admire). As I got into it, though, I began to enjoy the of-the-moment nature of the columns and to transport myself back several years to the time when Bush's great crusade was the missile shield. I'm sure that most readers of the TIMES are familiar with Dowd's stock tools and conceits: the use of contemporary popular movies as a lens through which to read politics, the framing of the Bush II presidency as a Shakespearian dynastic histotragecomedy, the comic portrayals of grumpy Cheney and idiot boy Bush, the constant wordplay. The prose is fine, but what comes out is how much better it could have been if it weren't written on deadline. I haven't read her new one, ARE MEN NECESSARY?, but I'd like to see what she can do when she sets out to write a book, not just a 600-word column.

I didn't learn much about W that I didn't know before, but it did really put things in context. We forget just how badly W was doing before 9/11, and now that he's reverted to form he's so clearly both a confirmation and refutation of the Peter Principle (that one rises to the level of one's incompetence): he constantly runs up against his essential limits of competence, and only 9/11 and Rove's clever use of it have kept Bush in office. But W also shows that encountering the bounds of one's competence in an arena controlled less by reality than by image-makers isn't necessarily limiting: someone with Bush's level of intelligence and talent shouldn't ever have become President--his essential incompetence should have prevented this--but with money, power, family connections, and smart strategists he did. This really comes out in Dowd's book.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


"Family-values" scold Rick Santorum is allowing a recording of himself to be used on automated calls to Republican voters in support of Representative Don Sherwood, who "acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a younger woman with whom he also settled a lawsuit last year," in the words of THE HILL.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

fleece blanket

fleece blanket
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The blanket is popular with the boy and with his cousin; here, they are sacked out while watching Strawberry Shortcake.

ball game

ball game
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Family in town this weekend, and we caught the Pirates games on Friday and Saturday nights. Two wins! Saturday also brought us Fleece Blanket Night.

Monday, May 01, 2006

stephen colbert

There's been a lot of comment about Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner this weekend, so I won't repeat it. Watch it, though: it shouldn't seem as brave as it does.