Stories from Summer Vacation: Brendan Gaughen Researches Place Collecting

In the last gasp of summer, here are a few words from Brendan Gaughen, who spent his summer taking several trips across the nation for his dissertation research –

I’m finally doing some dissertation research and did some traveling this summer to do some interviews and generally report on what I saw.  I’m looking at specific ways people interact with the places they visit and how some treat travel as a form of collecting, how technology facilitates or enables these practices, and the ways in which some of these practices can function as a sort of voluntary surveillance.

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

This is the largest annual gathering in North America for a community of practitioners of a GPS-based hobby called geocaching, in which people hide containers, post the coordinates online, and others go out and find them.  It’s pretty simple but some of these so-called “geocachers” take things to the extreme, turning the hobby into a full-time occupation.  There are more than 2 million geocaches hidden around the world, and an entire cottage industry has sprung up in the last several years catering to this community.  Geocachers often hide objects as a way to memorialize places they find significant, though non-geocachers (“muggles,” borrowing a term from Harry Potter canon to describe those without wizard powers) generally have no idea these containers exist.


Extra Miler Club Convention, Reno NV

This is the only formal annual meeting for this group of people with intentional travel goals, generally that of visiting all 3141 counties in the United States.  Many members document their accomplishments by taking a photograph of themselves at every county line sign; others attempt to do certain things in each state (such as play golf, eat at a Dairy Queen, etc).  I spoke at length with one couple who drove their RV through all 48 states in a very circuitous manner, stopping to get an envelope stamped at the post office in every county seat in the US, something that had to happen during business hours Monday thru Friday.  They had a page for each county with a postmarked envelope, self-photograph in front of the courthouse, and short write-up about what the town was like.  This personal archive totaled 20 binders, something I would love to explore in further detail.


Lincoln Highway centennial celebration, Kearney NE

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway built in the United States and Kearney is the closest city to the highway’s midpoint (it ran between New York and San Francisco).  A few dozen vintage autos started at either end of the highway and met up in Kearney, so the town was temporarily saturated with Packards, Ford Model A’s, and more cars my dad can more easily recognize than I can.  Aside from witnessing a lot of nostalgia for archaic forms of automobile tourism, I attended some presentations about the history of the current incarnation of the Lincoln Highway Association and its 12-year long effort to map every iteration of the entire route – over 5,000 miles counting all the bypasses, realignments, and modernizations of the route.  Some Lincoln Highway devotees wish to travel as many miles of the original route as possible, and at one stop on our bus tour I watched about 100 people feel compelled to walk a 500-foot stretch of century-old concrete, an original 1913 section of the Lincoln Highway.  I was BY FAR the youngest person there, so it seems this [firsthand] nostalgic feeling toward the Lincoln Highway, and postwar road culture in general, may be in danger of disappearing altogether.


I made many contacts and took extensive notes at all three of these events, which, once I tie in a theoretical framework, will be beneficial for a couple chapters of my dissertation.  I still have to decide how to approach writing about these groups and their members, but these trips have resulted in a ton of raw data, photographs, and interview notes.  Being in these places reminded me that America is a big, fascinating, and complex place, and that there is a certain joy to discovering, interpreting, and complicating aspects of American culture.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Steve Hoelscher, “Meeting Denise on Morzinplatz”

Today, we’re delighted to share with you an incredible and powerful story from Dr. Steve Hoelscher, who spent part of the summer teaching in Vienna:

I spent part of this summer, like three others, teaching a study abroad course in Vienna, Austria. Beyond the obvious pleasure of living in what is arguably the world’s “most livable city,” the course gives me the opportunity to connect different areas of teaching and research interests that often remain separate. Urban geography, cultural memory, and transnational exchange entwine as my students (who are always superb, and this class was no exception) use the city as a living laboratory. We don’t just read about socialist housing in “Red Vienna,” for example; we study the Karl-Marx-Hof by holding class in one of its dozen courtyards, by talking with the curator who singlehandedly opened a new exhibition in one of its former collective washrooms, and by finding the bullet holes, which remain from the 1934 civil war (an event that ushered in Austrofascism and eventually Nazism). The geographer in me—born and bred in the tradition of fieldwork—comes alive when I leave behind the classroom and enter the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world beyond the ivory tower’s womb.

To be sure, there are risks with this approach. It sometimes rains when you’ve got a three-hour walking tour planned. Occasionally students get on the wrong streetcar and end up misplaced on the other side of town. Once in a while a beloved theoretical position doesn’t jibe with empirical reality as it’s lived on the street. Sometimes, though, serendipity brings it all together in a way that’s both unexpected and invigorating.

One such moment took place on the 12th of June this summer. The theme of the week took the somewhat cumbersome, but hopefully explanative, title of “Remembering Hitler’s Vienna: The Collapse of Monarchy and the Rise of Competing Political Movements, 1918-1945.” We had just had a class meeting at Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud’s house until he escaped Nazi persecution in 1938.  Reluctant to leave the home he had lived in and had practiced psychoanalysis for nearly 47 years, Freud finally took action after his daughter, Anna, survived a daylong interrogation by the Gestapo. Today, all that remains of the former Gestapo headquarters is a rather bleak park on the edge of the central city. Here, on Morzinplatz, stands the first of three Holocaust memorials that trace the changing textures of Austrian cultural memory and its participation in World War 2. Narratives of victimhood and perpetrator, of evasion and responsibility, of redemption and hopeless despair—in other words, many of the central themes that run through discussions of the Holocaust—are written in stone here, and at Albertinaplatz and Judenplatz.

To encourage my students to look closely at such memorial landscapes and to think about what they’re seeing, I ask that they spend a half hour drawing them. (I steal this practice from one of my graduate school mentors, Ted Relph, who convinced me of the importance of “seeing, thinking, describing landscapes,” as a way of understanding them) Although some students initially balk at the assignment—“I’m not an artist” or “I can’t draw” are frequent, understandable complaints—most find it a compelling way to defamiliarize the taken-for-granted. Or, in this case, to make sense of something strange. The site-specific Nameless Library on Judenplatz, for example, only makes sense when seen in its geographic setting; the steel and concrete design comes alive only when one notes that the books’ spines are facing inward, and thus hiding their contents; the power of the place as a void—as a space where things are missing, like handles to the entrance, or the 6 million people it commemorates—can only be felt when you’re viewing it from both up close and at mid-distance (and not, I would argue, online).

hoelscher figure 1

The quiet, somber landscape, which gestures toward loss and emptiness, contrasts with the more traditional memorial on Morzinplatz, with its inscription of Austria’s resurrection and its chained figure breaking the bonds of tyranny. In one, the focus is on Jewish genocide; at the other, the state of Austria is written as Hitler’s first victim—a preposterous claim, but one at the center of Austrian nationhood for more than a half century. Such, at any rate, were some of the things we talked about at each memorial. That is, until we noticed a couple eavesdropping on our discussion at Morzinplatz. After I explained, in German, that we were an American university group studying the history of Vienna, the woman answered, in Australian English, “well, I gathered that.”

hoelscher figure 2

Thus began one of the most remarkable conversations I’ve had in a college course. Denise introduced herself and her cousin, whom she was visiting for the first time.

After the long flight from Australia, it was Denise’s first full day in Vienna and her cousin was bringing her to the site where his father and her father, like Anna Freud, had been questioned by the Gestapo shortly after the 1938 Anschluß. But unlike the Freuds, these Jewish brothers were not allowed to leave, but instead were sent to Dachau. How they escaped the concentration camp was not made clear, but each spent the rest of the war in England, with one eventually returning to Vienna and the other immigrating to Australia.

hoelscher figure 3

My students and I were spellbound by Denise’s story, which seemed to embody the themes of the course. Memory really does seem anchored in places. It’s both personal and collective. And it’s fraught with unpredictability. But Denise’s story did more than just illustrate themes we had read about in books by James Young or Pierre Nora. It also made scholarly concepts real. This is important, and I’m not talking here just about convincing lunatic Holocaust deniers of what happened. Making theories concrete, breathing life into histories that appear ancient, giving voice to experiences that seem unfathomable: all that happens when you meet someone like Denise on Morzinplatz (or Judenplatz, where we ran into her later that day). That’s why I like to teach in Vienna during my summer vacation. And it is a nice place to live.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Natalie Zelt’s Refreshing Break

Here’s a note from Natalie Zelt about spending her summer enjoying Austin’s pools and some time away from the city, too:

After surviving the first year of graduate school, I have spent my summer away from campus in a state of rebellious delight. Beginning in May, I devoted hours looking at images of and about food while curating an exhibition for the Houston Center for Photography titled See Food: Contemporary Photography and the Ways We Eat which opens this November. Over the past few months, I’ve worked with an array of photographers, including one who spends the summer months salmon fishing, another who runs a farm featured in Portlandia.

I also swam as often as I could, making the most of Austin’s free public pools.  Swimming early in the morning was a great way to get to know some real characters in Austin. The rhythm of swimming laps proved soothing and revitalizing, as I compared the tiled bottom of my beloved Dottie Jordan pool to the shockingly large fish and underwater plants in Barton Springs.  This may not come as a much of a surprise to anyone else, but it turns out that swimming is an unbelievable way to decompress and stay cool in Austin.

Another way to beat the heat is to get out of town. I just got back from a whirlwind research trip to Chicago.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of radical initiatives that link art and community, Chicago turns out to be an incredible town to check out. While there, I visited the Jane Addams Hull House where the staff literally opened their desks to share their working files on the settlement house’s art lending library and the Butler Art Gallery.


I also explored the history of the Chicago Society for Art in Public Schools and the Art Resources in Teaching programs at the University of Illinois Chicago. In the Ryerson Archives at the Art Institute, I learned about some pretty formidable efforts to bring art to the farming communities around Chicago in the 1920s. And I also heard about a number of current programs, such as CSA’s (or Community Supported Art), that connect contemporary artists and the community.  Prior to my trip to Chicago, I ventured up to Boston where I managed to coerce my younger brother into crashing a bridal shower dressed in full Colonial-era garb and to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Much to my unabashed glee, the bride was mortified and the crowd loved it!

The rest of the summer was spent with my puppy Scout as she recovered from two leg surgeries.


Aside from becoming acquainted with puppy orthopedics and the wonders of Austin, this summer allowed me to explore a many of the interests born out of first-year seminars at my own pace. My work on See Food and my research in Chicago were both great ways to allow my first-year of graduate study to grow and have gotten me pretty pumped about the fall.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Karl Hagstrom Miller on Amateur Musicians

Our next account of summer vacation comes from Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller, who discusses some research from his fascinating book project on amateur pop musicians in America:

I’ve spent my summer working on my book project Sound Investments: Amateur Musicians Make American Pop.  It rewrites the history of pop music in the United States from the perspective the millions of relatively anonymous musicians who play pop music in their everyday lives—from 19th-century parlor pianists to YouTube warblers.  This is not how we usually tell the story.

Finding evidence of amateur music making has been a challenge.  I have spent a good deal of the summer reading the first two chapters of musical biographies.

If you read enough musical biographies, you can soon predict what will happen in “Chapter Three.”  Not every time, of course.  Sometimes the moment comes a bit sooner or later in the book, but it almost always comes.  Here are some opening lines from third chapters:

“Kathy Dawn Lang found the man who would help make her a star in a classified ad in the local newspaper.  His name was Larry Wanagas, owner of Homestead Recorders, a small recording studio on Edmonton’s west side.”1

“We will probably never know exactly how Rosietta Atkins Tharpe—as she was then calling herself—made the leap from a COGIC church in Miami to the stage of the Cotton Club, New York City’s most renowned nightspot.”2

“By the early spring of 1981, Husker Du had logged upward of fifty local gigs in Minneapolis/St. Paul when they left to play Chicago on March 21 and 22.  The industrious trio pulled off two major hat tricks for their first out-of-towner.”3

“Nineteen-year-old Ernest Dale Tubb had indeed been bitten by the entertainment bug, and so had his friends the Castlemans and ‘Buff’ Buffington.  All migrated to San Antonio about the same time in late 1933.”4

“Producers’ promises come cheap, the price of drinks or maybe even a dinner tab.  Each year the Country Music Association figures, thousands of hopefuls find their way to Nashville, and for nearly every one of them there is someone who will promise, ‘I’ll make you a star’…Yearwood had heard plenty of that talk by the time she met Garth Fundis.”5

“As soon as he could, Gordy started sending Mary out to appear at theaters and clubs, first in Detroit and later all over the country.  She would continue to perform on stage for paying audiences for most of the rest of her life.”6

“I played my guaranteed two weeks on the KMTR ‘Breakfast Club’ for winning the contest, and then they hired me as a regular member of the show.  The pay was not great, $7.50 a show, but it was a paying job and I was doing what I loved—singing.”7

I could go on.  In the standard stories we tell about pop musicians, “Chapter Three” is the move into show business.  It changes the frame of the story from the home to the industry.  Opening chapters are about mothers and fathers, family and childhood.  “Chapter Two” chronicles protagonists’ initial musical exposure, growing passion, and experiences playing with family and friends—their lives as amateur musicians.  “Chapter Three” is the story of the integration into some component of the established music industry. The move is from preoccupation to occupation, from fandom to eventual stardom, from drudgery to meaningful work. It could be playing a modest circuit, a quick rise to fame, or a move to an entertainment industry hub. In “Chapter Three,” professional peers, managers, and well-known musicians replace old friends in the narrative. These new characters typically remain throughout the rest of the tale of what is now a life more than ordinary, a life of someone with talent, tenacity, and a record contract. They may have recorded for Sony or Folkways, a major label or tiny independent.  They may have been wildly successful or obscure and forgotten. They are all winners here.  They all have their “Chapter Three.”8

The scope of popular music scholarship is limited largely to the people and products of the commercial recording industry, and that is a problem.  It focuses on a miniscule subset of the people that play popular music.  It equates the culture with the industry, even as many stories are critical of the corporatism or consumerism at its heart.  Such criticisms—often expressed in terms of artistic autonomy, authenticity, or keeping it real—are always incomplete or contested, because commercial recording artists are, by definition, part of the commercial recording industry.   They are in the business of making music that pays.  “Chapter Three” tales thus conform to the narratives of progress and upward mobility, self-made bootstrapping and individual genius, deeply woven into the rhetoric of United States exceptionalism. They inevitably chart progress from being anonymous to being known, from inchoate dabbling to artistic vision. Of course, there is often a fall:  irrelevance, selling out, destitution.  But the prominence and repetition of these narratives tend to equate participation in popular music with navigating the commercial record industry and doing it well, whether that means getting rich or maintaining integrity in the face of outside demands. They reinforce the myth of the American Dream, what Alex de Tocqueville called “the charm of anticipated success.”9

Standard pop music narratives ignore musicians who did not enter show business.  When these players do appear, they are often merely prologue to the professional journey of our commercial recording artist of interest.  They are childhood chums or early influences, the basic musical protoplasm that our evolving hero will eventually transcend.  This is akin to writing an industrial labor history that suddenly, in chapter three, veers from the shop floor to follow a worker’s career after he is promoted to management.  It misses a great deal of what is going on by not remaining with the rank and file to see how its story develops.  Those who stay behind continue to work, continue to create, even as watching one of their ranks climb the corporate ladder affects their sense of what they are doing and shapes their dreams about their own futures.

This is not to say that ordinary people never make it into the scholarship on popular music.  It is just to say that they usually are not identified as pop musicians.  They are fans or consumers, listeners or audiences or aspirants.  When they do play music, authors often distinguish what they are doing from the workings of the pop music business.  They play folk or community music instead of pop.  They play art music that is immune to the infection of commercialized ditties.  They forge local music cultures that are oppositional or resistant to the corporate mainstream.  While these approaches are useful and fascinating, I am not interested in them here.  They, like the “Chapter Three” turn, draw a line between the activities of professional pop musicians and those of musical amateurs.

In my book, I want to avoid the “Chapter Three” turn as well as the temptation to identify amateurs as part of a separate culture from commercial pop stars.  Here, I am not interested in isolated folk cultures or local scenes, community choirs or school orchestras.  I am interested in understanding how pop music has functioned as a mass participatory culture.  I am interested in how ordinary people play well-known pop music in their everyday lives and how that shapes their conceptions of themselves, their society, and the pop stars whom they emulate.  Jay-Z and Alicia Keys may be very different from the ordinary folks singing “Empire State of Mind” in their bedrooms, but I want to imagine the contours of a pop music culture that thrives on their connections and resonances across that divide rather than the divide itself.

In the end, musicians who vault into the music business are the exception rather than the rule. They are the outliers.  There are millions more musicians who never have a “Chapter Three” moment.  Some may desire one.  Some may work hard to make it happen.  Almost all will fail.  The predominant experience of pop musicians is to play in relative anonymity, to enjoy music with friends and family, and to imagine the odd characters for whom music becomes a source of wealth and renown.

“In later years other members of Last Exit would sometimes look back on that strange winter and wonder at Sting’s ambition.”10

1. Victoria Starr, k. d. lang: All You Get is Me (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), p. 27.

2. Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Store of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon, 2007), p. 33.

3. Andrew Earles, Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers who Launched Modern Rock (Voyager: Minneapolis, 2010), p. 46.

4. Ronnie Pugh, Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour (Durham: Duke, 1996), p. 19

5. Lisa Rebecca Gubernick, Get Hot or Go Home: Trisha Yearwood: the Making of a Nashville Star (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 41.

6. Peter Benjaminson, Mary Wells: The tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012), p. 26.

7. Patsy Montana with Jane Frost, The Cowboy’s Sweetheart (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002), p. 37.

8. Full disclosure:  In my last book, I made the same move but saved it for later.  Rookie.  Chapter Four begins, “In 1907, as the folklorist John Lomax collected material for Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, a young white Texas singer picked up stakes and moved fifteen hundred miles to new York City.”  See my Segregating Sound:  Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke, 2010), p. 121.

9. Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford, 2003), p. 5.

10. Christopher Sandford, Sting: Demolition Man (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1998), p. 44.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Andi Gustavson Launches Personal Pin-up Project

Andi Gustavson describes the launch of a digital archive on war and photography to which servicemembers of all kinds can contribute – take a look!

from the Personal Pin-up PRoject

from the Personal Pin-up PRoject

This summer I launched the digital humanities portion of my dissertation on Cold War snapshot photography, the Personal Pin-up Project. I am collecting the private photographs that servicemembers carried or kept with them during their time in the military. These personal “pin-ups” can be snapshots of loved ones taken by the soldiers themselves or pictures of women or men who posed for the camera and then sent that snapshot off to war. I am looking for the photograph kept in the pocket, or worn in the helmet, or hidden in the gear of each servicemember. These images of loved ones do not often make their way into archives or art galleries. And yet, if most military members had one special photograph with them when they went away to war, then there must be thousands of these snapshots—in shoeboxes under beds, tucked into the back of closets, left in journals or letters, or stored on cellphones. The Personal Pin-up Project brings together the private images scattered across thousands of homes into a public and digital archive.

The Personal Pin-up Project is a public digital archive of the private images taken and kept by many American veterans and their loved ones. There is currently no archival repository to collect such a specific subset of war-related photographs that were, nevertheless, very common. Over the last several years as I was working on my dissertation about snapshot photography and the Cold War, I kept coming across references to these personal photographs of loved ones that were treasured by servicemembers and carried with them while they were deployed. Tim O’Brien, for example, notes in The Things They Carried, “Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodacolor snapshot signed Love, though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera” (3). These snapshots are incredibly common and yet I had not come across many–I kept searching and muttering to my dissertation group that “surely these photographs are out there, so why can’t I find them?” After several failed attempts to discover the type of snapshots I knew existed, I decided it might be a better use of my time to just create the archive I hope to find.

Hopefully, The Personal Pin-up Project can become a way for servicemembers to preserve their collective memories about the role of photographs carried overseas. This is not an archive of professional photojournalism nor it is a catch-all for thousands of soldier snapshots. This collection of treasured photographs will document the private experience of war, making publicly available for the first time images that were highly valued and extremely personal. By exploring the personal snapshots taken by servicemembers into warzones and overseas, we can learn more about the intimate and daily experiences of war and its relationship to love, hope, longing, desire, frustration, admiration, and nostalgia.

Please consider contributing to this archive or encouraging someone you know to contribute to the archive at

Stories from Summer Vacation: Caroline Pinkston and Teaching Teachers

Here’s a report from Caroline Pinkston, who shares some details about her job with Breakthrough Austin:

At first glance, my summer job might not sound that great. During the academic year, when I’m not haunting the halls of Burdine, I’m living a double life as a high school English teacher. My summer is therefore exceptionally valuable to me, as both teacher and student. And yet, instead of getting to take a break from teaching and learning, somehow I was tricked into working as an Instructional Coach with Breakthrough Austin. That means I’m spending my whole summer with a combination of 19-year-olds and middle-schoolers. I spend my days walking between buildings on the UT campus, literally covered in sweat.  Sometimes I run into friends or coworkers or former students, and I have to try to avoid eye contact because, again, I’m literally covered in sweat.

Breakthrough Austin

Breakthrough Austin

You might be thinking that this doesn’t sound like a great way to spend a summer. But you’re wrong. I have the greatest job on the planet. Here’s why:

  1. I’m working with an awesome program. Breakthrough Austin is part of a national collaborative working to support students who will be first-generation college graduates. Breakthrough begins working with these students in middle school, and continues to provide support all the way through college graduation. One fundamental part of Breakthrough is the summer program, which provides enrichment and summer learning opportunities to Breakthrough students entering 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Breakthrough’s summer program at UT is part summer camp, part school, and part mentoring program. Students do ridiculous cheers, build model roller coasters, tour local universities, perform Shakespeare, and throw pie at each other. It’s good stuff.

  1. Middle school students are hilarious. If you don’t think middle-schoolers are hilarious, it could be because you’re remembering being a middle school student, which — in my own experience, at least — is often more traumatic than funny. Being around middle-schoolers as an adult no longer immersed in a sea of anxiety and awkwardness,* however, is a different story. I’m no mathematician, but I feel confident asserting that 65% of what 14-year-olds say is really, really funny (and often unintentionally so, which is even better).  I spend a lot of my day laughing, or trying not to laugh, or thinking about how funny this will be later. It’s a pretty good way to spend a day.

*Actually, this is still a remarkably accurate description of my life.

  1. I’m not the one who actually has to control the middle-schoolers. This is where things start to get really awesome. Breakthrough’s summer program is based on a students-teaching-students model, which means classes are run by college students (and a few high school students) who come to Austin from all over the country to try out teaching. My job as an Instructional Coach is to work with these young teachers and help them figure out what good teaching is all about. It turns out that brainstorming ways to stop Student X from doing whatever ridiculous thing he or she is doing in class is significantly more fun than being the one who actually has to stop Student X. It also turns out that spending all day watching energetic, motivated, insanely creative young people teach is the best way I can imagine to recharge my own teaching energy before I am running a classroom of my own again.

  1. I get to talk about nerdy education stuff all the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the people I work with are also really interested in education and its connection to various things American Studies-related, and said coworkers will talk with me about these things literally all day long! It’s great! The fact that I’ve found this outlet is a welcome relief to many of my other friends, I’m sure. It also means I’m going back into my graduate school life full of new ideas and energy and ready to read and talk about things again.

  1. I am finished most days by 2pm. This perhaps speaks for itself, but just in case, I will elaborate: most afternoons, I have plenty of time to read 1Q84, attempt to train my new puppy Thelma, and think about going to free Russian classes at Russian House, but not actually go. What more could you want from the summer?

photo (1)


Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Julia Mickenberg in the UK

Next up is a dispatch from across the pond! Dr. Julia Mickenberg discusses her time spent in the UK:

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny's Pharmacy in Dublin

A reading of Dubliners at Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin

I spent the first part of the summer trying to finish some writing projects, putting together a new Plan II Signature Course on “College and Controversy,” and getting ready to spend six weeks in Ireland and the UK. On July 4th my family left for Ireland, where we spent a week, mostly in the West—we visited Yeats’ Tower (closed, but still really cool, down a narrow lane and next to a beautiful stream) and Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, containing a huge tree autographed by pretty much every literary figure from early twentieth-century Ireland. My daughters busked in Galway, and took in 7 Euros, which they spent on fancy ice cream cones. In Dublin we visited Sweny’s Pharmacy, featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and now preserved as a kind of tribute to Joyce: there we participated in a rather magical reading from Dubliners.

Now I’m in Oxford, England, tagging along with a crew from UT’s English department (including my husband, Dan Birkholz), which runs a summer program here. Outside my window are green fields where old men and women do lawn bowling and play bocce, and boys and girls play soccer. Running between two fields (and also just outside my window) is a bicycle path that goes to the city (we’re in an area called Summertown, just north of Oxford) and out into the countryside. Nearly every morning I’ve been running through a green meadow and woods with walking paths, the Thames River slowly winding alongside.

After a bike ride along the Thames

After a bike ride along the Thames

Sometimes I work at home, in my little study looking out over the athletic fields. Other days bicycle into Oxford, which seems to be filled with American students. No matter, it’s still a pretty fabulous place, heavy with history, the kind of place that makes you want to do nothing but read. Blackwell’s Bookstore is dizzying. Every site in town is a literary reference. Speaking of books and literature, I’ve been working in the Bodleian Library, which is probably the ur-library of libraries. There’s an exhibit going on right now in the library about Magic in Children’s Literature, from the Middle Ages to Middle Earth. Pretty awesome stuff, with original Tolkien manuscripts alongside illuminated manuscripts that you can’t believe they’ve just put in a case for everyone to see. I’ve met with some British children’s literature scholars, and Oxford is, of course, home to Alice Liddel of Alice in Wonderland fame, not to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, etc., but mainly I’m working on the book that’s been preoccupying me for years, on Russia in the American Feminist Imagination, 1905-1945.

So, at the Bodleian. Once I found my way to the place where the books I needed were supposedly shelved, through the maze of stairs and passageways, I stood mystified for a while, with no clue as to how to find the books I needed (and I pride myself on being a library person). Finally an old man asked me if I needed help and I said yes, yes I do need help. Turns out, as I have remarked elsewhere, these English people don’t use the Library of Congress cataloguing system. But I found my books and sat happily reading in the bowels of the library (seriously, I was in the sub, sub-basement). I’m mostly working in the Vere Harmsworth Library, specializing in American culture (yup, they haven’t forgotten us in Merrie olde England). I’m also taking a few trips into London: the chapter I’m currently writing concerns a joint American-British Quaker Russian famine relief effort in 1921-1922, and I need to look at materials in the London Friends House. Several radicals (American and British) managed to get into Russia during the allied blockade by volunteering with the Quakers, who didn’t care about their volunteers’ politics. I’m interested especially in how publicity workers created sympathy for the Bolshevik project by playing on the public’s concern for starving Russian children (child savers presenting the possibility of a glorious future if these children are saved, i.e. child saviors). Doing a bunch of other research too depending on how many trips to London I can squeeze in: at the Karl Marx Library, the Women’s Library at London School of Economics, the Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies, and the World Education Fellowship.

It’s a lot to cram in, what with all the traveling we’re doing, some with the UT Program (Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen-related sites, William Morris related sites, etc.). In the Lake District we’ll see the landscapes that inspired William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, and other luminaries of childhood innocence. And right here in Oxford there’s plenty to do. This past weekend we went on a long bike ride along the Thames, and went punting from the Cherwell Boat House with Lisa Moore (a colleague on the UT program) and her son Max. I’m drinking a lot of tea and spending quality time in English pubs, trying my requisite share of British ales.