The Square Circuit

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

Thursday, January 29, 2009

research trips

The South isn't always as South as one might think. My wife was envious that I was coming down to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to research in the Fulbright archive at the U of A this week, and presumably to escape the 6 inches of snow predicted in Pittsburgh. But when I got here, the worst ice storm they've ever seen hit, and not only was the university entirely closed the whole time I've been here (making this trip a complete waste), the hotel I was in had no power: no heat, no light, no hot water, not even doors that could lock. (And they tried to charge full price for the rooms, which was especially galling.) Yesterday, because of a general power outage all over the city, only two places were open (a coffee shop and a Qdoba) and I'm so grateful to them for providing heat and food. Going home a day early today, because the university is closed through the week. Wasted trip, and I'll have to come back.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I was introduced to the concept of "ratfucking" by a friend of mine at USC, who enlightened me to the fact that my old employer in downtown LA served as the venue for the apprenticeships of some of the most illustrious political operators of the 20th century. "Ratfucking" was the term of art used by USC Young Republicans for the dirty tricks they used in student elections, and that they then brought to the eager attention of President Nixon. Donald Segretti, HR Haldeman, Ron Ziegler, and others attended USC and explored some very clever means of undermining their opponents. And "ratfucking" is the core of the final section of Rick Perlstein's recent book NIXONLAND, a book that I received for Christmas (thanks, Brad and Sandy!) and just finished.

As I've mentioned before, I think I've become so accustomed to academic histories that I get impatient with popular history, even very expansive ones like Perlstein's. (Odd to get impatient with popular writin and not with academic writing, which is often so tedious as to be a parody of itself.) I don't quite understand Perlstein's project. It traces Nixon's rise from the Hiss case to just after the 1972 election, when the Watergate investigation began to close in on the White House, but as Perlstein makes clear this is less a biography of Nixon (and he is very snotty in several instances towards Nixon's psychobiographers) than it is a discussion of the rise of "Nixonland," the self-described oppressed Silent Majority, that, Perlstein's thesis seems to be, Nixon created and gave life to as a voting bloc. Perlstein's basic conceit here is that Nixon's world fell into two categories: Franklins and Orthogonians. These terms came from Nixon's time at Whittier College, where the "Franklins" were a club of social strivers, the intellectuals and privileged ones--the club Nixon couldn't join. In response, Nixon formed the "Orthogonians," a club for the ordinaries like himself, middle-class and working-class folks who felt snubbed by the Franklins. Perlstein stretches this metaphor out throughout the book: Nixon's constituency were always Orthogonians, and his enemies--Alger Hiss, Adlai Stevenson, the media, Jews, Hollywood celebrities, etc.--were Franklins. Orthogonians had always been around, but Perlstein argues that Nixon gave them a voice: resentment. This was not NATIONAL REVIEW, Buckleyite conservatism, this was the roots of right-wing talk radio: duplicitous, anti-intellectual, both fawning of and resentful of power, and forever enshrining a mythical Past when Things Were Better in its rhetoric. Oddly enough, the death of this Orthogonian cycle in our history (lasting from 1968 to 2008) was the ultimate Franklin, George W. Bush.

It's not a sociological study because Perlstein's research isn't really grounded in much empirical fact about the changing feelings about these groups, or even who these groups were. It's not a biography of Nixon, and it's not a history of America 1948-1972 because so much is left out. Instead, I see this book as in many ways (and perhaps unknowingly) influenced by one of the dominant strains in literary study: reception theory. Much of what Perlstein does that is so effective is to transport the reader back into those times and to recount particularly what reading the newspapers of the day was like. He's spent a great deal of time at the Museum of TV and Radio watching the broadcasts of the 1968 and 1972 conventions and the important speeches, and shows how even the commercials of the time reflected the growing Franklin-Orthogonian conflict. But Perlstein skims over the surface of history far too much for my comfort. Nowhere does he go particularly deeply into any single event or episode; most of the time he describes how a typical American, getting news from the papers and TV, would have understood the event, and then perhaps he adds a few tidbits about the central figures involved. I contrast this to the absolutely brilliant popular histories written by J. Anthony Lukas (a writer that Perlstein credits several times, and who I suspect is one of Perlstein's heroes). In COMMON GROUND in particular, Lukas deals with the Boston busing controversy in intricate detail, from the point of view of almost a dozen participants. I wonder what Lukas would have done with Perlstein's project--I suspect he would have chosen one particular incident (Chicago 1968, I suspect) to use as his lens through which to examine the growth of Nixonland.

Perlstein's writing is also a bit precious for me. I've just been reading Carlyle's FRENCH REVOLUTION and Perlstein's "writerly" prose isn't as obnoxious as that, but he does have a tendency to use sentence fragments. Which are used intentionally but not well. He also likes to string sentence fragments together in a kind of list-crescendo. That irritates the reader by the way they call attention to themselves. That make me wish that Perlstein's editor had told him that he sounds like he's utterly persuaded of his own importance. And that give this generally balanced and credible study a touch of histrionic rhetoric that I could do without.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Pittsburgh, model for municipal transformation. Rather than us being the next Detroit, should Detroit become the next Pittsburgh?


Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I can't remember where it was, but recently someone--was it in Slate or Salon? one of those things I constantly read--made a snarky but pretty accurate comment about how there's really only room in the U.S. for one Latin American writer at a time, but that that writer will be universally recognized as a genius, everyone will start reading him/her, and all other Latin American writers will be forgotten for the duration of that one's reign. This began with Garcia Marquez and then moved on to Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Isabel Allende, and so on. Now, of course, the ruling Latino is the late Roberto Bolaño, a cosmopolitan Chilean. Bolaño was relatively unknown during his life; he started what is by most accounts a very minor movement called "infrarealismo" in Mexico City in the 1960s, spent a good deal of time in Spain, and ended up dying young, at 50, a few years back. THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES came out in the US about two years ago and it's been a big hit. I think that one reason so many readers like him is that he's a different kind of Latin American writer, one who not only rejects the dominant practices (mysticism, magical realism, and a fascination with the country and the rural world) of the "Boom" but explicitly attacks, through his characters, the way that the Boom's writers came to dominate the literary world back home.

I read, over break, THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and although it was a slog at times, relatively plotless, overall I thought it was very strong. It's a kind of oral history of a Mexico City literary movement, "visceral realism," led by two students, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Beginning with a month's worth of diary entries of a young man who is joining the movement, the book consists largely of putative oral histories, taking the story from the time of the diary to the present, of various other people's encounters with Lima and Belano as the two poets wander from Mexico City to Managua to Tel Aviv to Barcelona. Bookending the novel is the final section, further diary entries from the young man, taking up the story precisely where he left off. In the end, the visceral realists go north, to the small desert towns of Sonora and Baja California, looking for a poet from the 1920s who was the initial inspiration for visceral realism. Because I get tired of realism, I really enjoyed the intricate narrative structure of the book. At times in the middle of the endless oral history section I found my attention drifting, but I suppose this is part of the point: Belano and Lima are rootless, and the job of the reader is to pick up, from the voices of the people whom they meet, what is motivating them so we can proleptically understand the significance of their quest to find Cesarea Tinajero, the desert poet.


Monday, January 05, 2009

sabbatical plans

I'm on sabbatical, officially, starting today. So far I don't see the difference: I'm at work, at my computer. I don't have the nagging sense that I need to be writing a syllabus, though, so I guess that's one difference. The combination of sabbatical and New Years makes me want to make resolutions, and I have a few: more conscientious eating and food preparation (for the children too), parenting changes, and of course writing a book. Ahh, that.

the santa vigil

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Christmas eve... cookies ready.

jockey's ridge

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Although it was very cold and windy, Jockey's Ridge State Park was a huge hit--the biggest sand dunes on the East Coast. Great for climbing.

the lost colony

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Friday we checked out Fort Raleigh, the site of the original "lost colony" of English settlers. We wanted to go on board the Elizabeth II, a replica of the ship the colonists came on, but it was closed until mid-February. Too bad. A lovely day, though, as you can see.

steamer basket

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
We spent last week in an enormous house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Three stories, pool room, the Wii we got for Christmas, the beach, a hot tub... very nice. One night we got a "steamer" at the seafood shack--crabs, shrimp, clams. The boy, ordinarily a pretty picky eater, tried it.