Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ann Treacy: Fiction is woven of fact, history, and hard work.

Ann Treacy holds her family's past close, and features this image in her house.
Her grandmother, whose story figures into Treacy's latest fiction, is pictured dressed
in white. 

Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure here.


The Search for the Homestead Treasure is a middle-grade novel about a Swedish boy befriending a Gypsy boy on a farm in Goodhue County, Minnesota, in 1903. It seems I’ve been “pre-writing” this book all my life.

My grandmother was a young girl in 1903 on a Minnesota farm. She feared large horses, and had a sister, Annie Koehnen, who died of diphtheria in 1893 at the age of eight. Life expectancy for Americans in 1903 was forty-nine years. Children commonly died from diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, and measles. My family's details and more have simmered for years, distilling into this work of fiction in which fourteen-year-old Martin Gunnarsson tries to hold his family together on the homestead where his Swedish ancestors died of diphtheria during the Civil War. Martin’s life is complicated when Pa suffers a logging camp injury, and again when he befriends a Roma boy, Samson—and cannot let his family know. Martin discovers his Aunt Cora’s diary, penned 40 years before and hinting at a family treasure. But what exactly is he looking for?

When I was growing up, an old family photo hung in our living room (pictured above), and now hangs in mine. My grandmother is the youngest child, wearing white in front. Annie is the pencil sketch in the middle. This photo would have been taken sometime between 1900 and 1910—a momentous time in US history, though I also think of it as a quiet time.

During that first decade of the century, following the depression of the 1890s and before the world went to war in the teens, President Theodore Roosevelt governed a country of 80 million people (compared with roughly 323 million citizens today). It was a time of many firsts. The first World Series (a best-of-nine series) was played in 1903, with the Boston Americans winning five games to three over the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year, Orville and Wilbur Wright made aviation history with their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Farmers still mostly used horses, although there were some automobiles—about eight thousand throughout the country.

I wanted to bring alive historic details for young readers, including what farming with horses was like; the difficult work of rock and stump clearing; and pumping all the water needed to fill a bath tub, then emptying the tub by hand. Today kids think that "working out" means exercising. With few social or government programs, our ancestors who could not afford to feed their children often sent to them to “work out” as free farm help, where they labored in exchange for food and board.

Many nations of the world have nomadic people known by various names as Gypsies, rovers, walking people, and travelers. Gypsies came to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, when many Europeans immigrated. For all of her 101 years, Grandma Minnie (who was born in 1896) spoke of her childhood fear of Gypsies who roamed the rural countryside. She blamed them for the theft of anything from clothes off the line to kidnapping. Whereas Grandma would never have spoken to them or gotten closer than seeing Gypsies perform tricks in town on a Saturday night, I used to wonder: what if you could get to know one of the Gypsy children personally?

This chair belongs to a former neighbor of Treacy's,
whose family set this chair outside their dwelling and
offered goods to the traditionally nomadic Roma people.

The Roma history in Minnesota intrigued me again when I was in college, helping an elderly neighbor clear her attic. We discovered an ancient chair, pictured above, which belonged to her grandparents. When Gypsies were in the area, they set the chair outside their cabin with chickens tied to it, or left fresh loaves of bread on it, believing that by sharing enough they would not be stolen from. The Roma did not have the habit of knocking on doors, and had different ideas about distributing wealth. The Minnesota Historical Society suggested I read farm journals for background information, as rather little is recorded of Gypsies in Minnesota. Perhaps they shunned photography, and newspapers of the day tended primarily to report their presence in an area as a warning, such as this August 15, 1895, account from the Red Wing Daily Republican:

A number of gypsies who have been in camp near this place for the past few days, canvassed the city yesterday, begging money and making themselves a nuisance generally. Some of the merchants say that it required close watching to keep them from carrying away articles in their spacious pockets or bundles which they carried with them. A trained bear and monkey, and the singing of antiquated songs by young girls, were some of the methods used to attract attention and draw pennies from the pockets of our citizens.

This story could have been set in any Midwestern farming community. Traveling Roma (commonly referred to as Gypsies from a mistaken belief that their ancestors came from Egypt) immigrated to North America when most European immigrants came. From the late 1800s until the mid-twentieth century their traveling lifestyle brought them from town to town and farm to farm throughout the states, territories, and provinces of North America, where their culture often clashed with others, including other immigrant groups. Yet despite cultural differences, children and young people have a way of developing friendships through shared experiences.

This piece was adapted from the Author's Note that appears in The Search for the Homestead Treasure.
Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure!
Deadline: July 14, 2016.

Ann Treacy is author of The Search for the Homestead Treasure and coauthor (with Margi Preus) of A Book of Grace. Her writing has appeared in Lake Superior Magazine as well as Highlights for Children magazine. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Marshall Avenue near Finn Street (Marshall and Finn are horses in the novel). She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Author Michelle Cliff dies at 69

Cliff's writing serves as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world.

The University of Minnesota Press is deeply saddened to hear of Michelle Cliff’s death. Cliff embraced her many identities as a light-skinned Creole, a lesbian, and an immigrant in both England and the United States to prove the intersections of prejudice and oppression. She never shied away from difficult themes of colonialism, race, gender, and sexuality and balanced her powerful messages with a personal and lyrical writing voice. Able to transcend the genres of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, Cliff’s writings serve as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world and how to bring attention to suppressed voices.

The Press extends its sympathies and condolences to Cliff’s friends, family, colleagues, and students. We are proud to have published If I Could Write This in Fire (2008), Everything Is Now: New and Collected Stories (2009), and Into the Interior (2010).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Minnesota boxing legend Scott LeDoux stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali

Scott LeDoux, also known as Minnesota's Rocky, stares down Muhammad Ali
before their five-round exhibition in December 1977.
Image courtesy of the family of Scott LeDoux.


Scott LeDoux loved talking about Muhammad Ali. He fought the champ in a five-round exhibition in Chicago in 1977. LeDoux and his manager visited Ali at his California mansion and watched movies together. And LeDoux loved telling the story of Ali meeting Scott’s first wife, Sandy.

“How did he get you?” the champ asked Sandy LeDoux.

“He got me when I was young,” she told Ali.

LeDoux’s introduction to Ali came in February of 1964, when Scott was a teenager. Cassius Clay, the brash Olympic gold medalist, fought the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in Miami that night, and LeDoux listened intently to the round-by-round recaps on his Philco radio. I was 13 at the time and remember crawling under my covers with my transistor radio, rooting for the charismatic challenger against the evil Liston, all the while trying to contain my excitement from my parents, who assumed I’d gone to sleep.

Like many children of the 1960s, Ali would become one of my heroes—and it all started that night. Years later, I met Ali—and promoter Don King—in a New York hotel elevator, a surreal experience, to be sure. But sharing an elevator with Ali and sharing the ring with the champ were two very different experiences. And LeDoux couldn’t wait to go toe-to-toe with Ali, even if for only five rounds in which Ali wore headgear, oversized gloves, and about 20 extra pounds.

This is what he told Ali at a press conference promoting their exhibition:

Float like a buffalo
Sting like a tank
You couldn’t hurt me
If you were swinging a plank
You may be big
You may be fast
You fight me
You’ll end up last.

To which Ali replied, “Not bad for a white boy.”

This is the essence of what attracted me to LeDoux. It started in 2007, when I worked as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and LeDoux was an Anoka County commissioner. The county was bidding for a stadium that would house the Minnesota Vikings, in Blaine. I was at the Minnesota State Capitol, covering the evolving story. LeDoux never ducked a fight and rarely ducked any questions. He became a source.

But I wanted to know more about a stadium that, ultimately, would be built in Minneapolis. There were more important questions to ask LeDoux.

“What was it like to get punched in the head by George Foreman in his prime?” I asked LeDoux.

“Why would you ask that?” LeDoux responded.

“Because,” I told him, “I’ve never met anyone crazy enough to suffer through that.”

LeDoux told me that Foreman bloodied his nose and opened a 12-stitch gash above his left cheek.

“George Foreman hit me so hard my ancestors in France felt it,” LeDoux told me—and anyone else who asked.

That’s how the seeds for my biography of LeDoux, The Fighting Frenchman, were planted. LeDoux was a boxing historian who loved telling boxing tales. More often than not, when LeDoux regaled me with boxing stories, the conversation always floated like a butterfly back to Ali.

LeDoux loved to tell the story of Ali agreeing—in principle—to fight LeDoux for the title and how the dream unraveled when Ali lost his championship to Leon Spinks, the young Olympian who took a pounding from LeDoux when LeDoux and Leon fought to a draw in Las Vegas.

The title fight with Ali never materialized—not even after Ali reclaimed his crown by defeating Spinks in a rematch. But Ali remained a presence in LeDoux’s life. Ali was ringside at the old Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, when LeDoux fought Larry Holmes for the title in 1980. And LeDoux was part of the undercard when Ali fought for the final time, in the Bahamas.

Through the years, Ali and LeDoux continued to occasionally cross paths, thanks in part to LeDoux’s charitable work or his travels as a ringside announcer for ESPN. LeDoux, who died in 2011, said he last saw Ali in 2006.

When you examine their careers, it’s hard to place Scott LeDoux in the same category as Muhammad Ali. The last person who would do that was LeDoux, who reminded doubters that he wasn’t a cheap date. But he wasn’t Ali. When you hear the title “The Greatest,” you think of Ali and only Ali.

Yet, during the days following Ali’s passing, I could not help but marvel at how fate linked the careers of LeDoux and one of the dominant personalities and athletes of all time.

“Guys like Ali have it every night,” LeDoux said. “Guys like me have it once or twice in a career.”


Paul Levy was a writer for the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune for thirty-five years. He has written for the New York Times, ABC News, the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, and Mother Jones.

"Nobody ever gave 100 percent like Scott did. You can argue about his technique, but not his heart and effort. Of course, after every fight he lost, he’d say, ‘He never touched me,’ or that it was a lucky punch."
—Bob Lurtsema, Minnesota Vikings legend

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Carelessness and fate: One man's survival on the open sea

Built to haul enormous cargo tonnage to ports all around the Great Lakes, the Morrell
was one of only a handful of 600-foot freighters at the time of her launching in 1906.

An excerpt (modified from the Prologue) from the forthcoming book Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell and One Man's Survival on the Open Sea by Michael Schumacher.

We are giving away advances of Torn in Two. Sign up for a chance to win here.
Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

Dennis Hale pulled his car into the Bethlehem Steel plant just in time to see the Daniel J. Morrell reaching the Buffalo breakwater on Lake Erie, a short distance from the plant's Lackawanna loading dock. It was eleven in the evening of November 26, 1966. Hale, a twenty-six-year-old watchman on the bulk carrier, had missed the boat—quite literally—on other occasions, but never with so much riding on it. If he failed to make this last trip of the season, he would be forfeiting his annual bonus, vacation pay, and extended vacation pay, adding up to a loss of six to seven thousand dollars.

Hale had not been home for Thanksgiving. He could have accepted this as part of the downside of working on the lakes late in the season, but when the Morrell was sailing on the return trip to Lackawanna, New York, the boat's master, Captain Arthur Crawley, learned that the Morrell would be required to return to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, for yet another load. The Morrell, along with her sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, would be substituting for the stricken vessel. The additional voyage would be the Morrell's thirty-fourth run of the shipping season.

There was no reason, other than carelessness and bad timing, for Hale's not being on the boat. When the Morrell had arrived at Lackawanna, she could not immediately unload. Two freighters were ahead of her at the dock. Hale viewed this inconvenience as an unexpected opportunity: his Ashtabula, Ohio, home was only three hours away, and since it took nearly eight hours to unload the average freighter, he estimated that he could drive home, see his wife and spend the night in his own bed, and return to Lackawanna in plenty of time to be back onboard the Morrell before she sailed for Minnesota.

Hale left as soon as he found someone to cover his watch duty. John Groh, a twenty-one-year-old deckwatch on the Morrell, hitched a ride with him.

Hale, it turned out, miscalculated how long it would take to unload the boats—and Crawley's determination to leave the docks as soon as possible. The Lackawanna-Taconite trip was a long but familiar haul. This one promised to be a little rougher than most.

Weather forecasts called for stormy weather on Lake Erie, and Crawley ordered water added to the Morrell's ballast tanks. The extra weight would allow the Morrell to ride lower in the water, giving her better stability. The smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie was notoriouis for the ferocity of its late-autumn storms.

As soon as they knew they were stranded, Hale and Groh visited the Coast Guard station and radioed Crawley. Crawley had little choice but to accommodate the two tardy crewmen. Already short-handed in his crew, Crawley wanted the two onboard. The Morrell, he told them, would be taking on a load of coal the next day at Mullen Dock, near Windsor, Ontario. Hale and Groh could rejoin the crew at that time.

Hale assured him that he would be there.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advances of Torn in TwoSign up for a chance to win here. Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

In addition to Torn in Two, Michael Schumacher has published three previous books about the Great Lakes: Mighty Fitz, about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald; The Wreck of the Carl D., about the loss of the Carl D. Bradley; and November’s Fury, an account of the Storm of 1913, the deadliest in Great Lakes history. Dharma Lion—his acclaimed biography of Allen Ginsberg—will be reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press this summer. He recently edited The Essential Ginsberg and is currently writing an account of the 1968 presidential election, also to be published by Minnesota. He lives in Wisconsin.

"Michael Schumacher's latest book is tragic, gripping, and hard to put down. He captures the fury of the Great Lakes as a winter storm rips a steel hull in two and tosses the crew into the lake’s cold, dark maw. What happens next is a true survival tale."—Cary Griffith, author of Savage Minnesota and Lost in the Wild

Thursday, June 2, 2016

In 1920s Minnesota, Prohibition created moral dilemmas, violence—and opportunity.

To be alive is to take risks every single second of every single day.
—from Mary Casanova's Ice-Out


The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advance copies of Ice-OutSign up for a chance to win here! Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.



As with my earlier novel Frozen, the inspiration for Ice-Out's setting comes from where I live on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. Perched in our 100-year-old home, I gaze across the bay at the lift bridge that joins Minnesota and Canada. It's easy to imagine an earlier time during Prohibition when trains with concealed casks of Canadian whiskey rolled through this sleepy village of Ranier. When federal agents discovered a railcar with Canadian whiskey, they rolled the confiscated casks onto the frozen shore and shattered them with axes. Recognizing a different kind of opportunity, locals rushed in with cups and buckets.

In the early 1920s, Ranier and nearby International Falls formed the backdrop for a compelling cast of historical characters and events. A wealthy industrialist was determined to turn the watershed into a series of hydropower dams. A budding environmentalist fought to stop him. A corrupt sheriff known for taking bribes was dismissed by the state governor. The newly appointed sheriff and his deputy, overly zealous to stop bootlegging, bent the laws to their own ends. To the outrage of locals, for example, a bootlegger was shot in the back as he crossed the river, returning to Canada; the sheriff claimed the bullet ricocheted off the water. When two bootleggers were arrested on Rainy Lake, one man begged not to be handcuffed and lost his life when the law enforcement vehicle went through the ice; the remaining bootlegger was blackmailed into secrecy. A kingpin Ranier bootlegger with ties to Chicago won the devotion of his many employees, who chose to serve prison time over testifying against their employer. As a rivalry between this bootlegger and the sheriff escalated, the unthinkable happened: on a routine arrest at a shack for check forgery, the sheriff and deputy were shot and killed.

Owen's character—a young man trying to support his family and establish a business amid the ambiguous moral standards of his hometown—is shaped largely from stories about my own father. Born in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the Depression, my father's early years were hardscrabble. As a boy, and at his mother's instruction, he trailed his father from bar to bar to gather his father's loose change. To earn money for groceries, he raised, trained, and sold white rats. Owen's journey became a way for me to explore my own father's drive for success and his determination to create a different life for himself. I wanted to explore the nature of ambition and what propels us. Owen's father tells him: Everything comes at a price. When does ambition blind us to costs along the way? In the end, Owen must confront hard choices—and the truth—in order to understand the restorative power of love and the true measure of a man.

On this northern frontier, Prohibition created opportunity. Bootleggers smuggled high-quality whiskey via trains, Model T's rigged for rough terrain, small airplanes, and boats. Poised to transport booze from Canada to a thirsty nation, a cottage industry exploded, and with it, accompanying violence, moral dilemmas, and countless untold stories.


Mary Casanova is author of more than thirty books for young readers, ranging from picture books like Wake Up, Island to novels like Frozen and Moose Tracks. Her books are on many state reading lists and have earned the American Library Association Notable Award, Booklist Editors' Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. She speaks frequently around the country at readings and library conferences. She lives with her husband and dogs in a turn-of-the-century house in Ranier, Minnesota, perched on the Canadian border.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Alive in the Age of Lovecraft

Professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University

Under the right circumstances, certain texts suggest a “weird realism,” circumstances (as described by Graham Harman) when language either struggles to describe the impossibly real or when it overflows with multiple possibilities. One of H. P. Lovecraft’s strengths as a writer lies in his constant insistence that there was always something just outside of human ken, something that might be understood by analogy or at the risk of one’s sanity. Human beings, as the opening of “The Call of Cthulhu” suggests, are simply not equipped to handle certain forms of knowledge.

For years, I introduced students to Lovecraft cautiously, as though we were all anxious about this evocative power. But things have changed dramatically over the last two decades. If we once approached the author reluctantly, we now embrace him as a cultural phenomenon. Students may not know his work any better, but they’re more likely to know something about his life, his work, and his monsters. Whereas I used to regale students with connections between Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, or Robert Bloch, I now find ways of introducing him through references to films, internet memes, music, YouTube videos, board games, and the like. One semester, a student taught us all how to play the overly complex game Arkham Horror during finals week. Another student gave me a copy of Cthulhu Fluxx, a fun card game that I happily played with family and friends.

It’s rare for authors, especially those in the pulp tradition, to achieve such strange 21st century heights so quickly. Lovecraft, no longer an obscure pulp writer, is now a public figure, the creator not only of Cthulhu but also of a body of imaginative and fascinating tales that are enjoying a new generation of readers. Even though the notion of a unified “Cthulhu Mythos” is controversial, Lovecraft’s universe nevertheless remains one of the coolest and most expansive imaginary sandboxes out there. How did Lovecraft become so popular?

There’s no simple answer to the question, but much can be gained from exploring the range of connections and intersections that draw on Lovecaft in some way. I’ve already mentioned some of the ways popular culture appropriates Lovecraft. Another productive development comes from Lovecraft’s increasing prominence in philosophical discussions, especially those stemming from Harman’s aforementioned weird realism or the way a story like “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” factors into Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work in A Thousand Plateaus. Moreover, Lovecraft’s cosmicism, especially the way he shifts attention decidedly away from the human, overlaps with recent work concerning posthumanism, animal studies, and deep time.

Lovecraft isn’t exactly a critical darling, but he’s certainly no longer the embarrassment to the literary establishment that he once was. In the last few years, new editions of his work have appeared, including those from Oxford University Press and the Library of America. He is also an acknowledged influence on graphic novels, films, songs, illustrations, sculptures, and more. In the early months of 2016, Matt Ruff (Lovecraft Country) and Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom) released novels featuring explicitly Lovecraftian themes and ideas. Jacqueline Baker’s 2015 novel (The Broken Hours) examines the last weeks of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft’s afterlife is certainly impressive, but his fame also brings renewed controversy concerning his blatantly racist attitudes. Though some prefer to dismiss his racism as a thing of the past, or to somehow separate the man from his fiction, others want to understand how racism shapes Lovecraft’s writing, particularly his approach to core themes such as impurity, abjection, and hybridity.

In 2015, the public side of this controversy came to a head when the World Fantasy Convention determined to no longer give the “Howie” (a small bust of Lovecraft) to award winners. Critics of this change decried it as bowing to political correctness; others applauded the change as a sign of progress. W. Scott Poole’s forthcoming biography of Lovecraft argues for greater frankness not only concerning Lovecraft’s racism but also calls for a wider awareness of the ways racism structured political power in the United States, especially in the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction—and how these problems continue to shape American public life in 2016.

Jeffrey Weinstock and I developed The Age of Lovecraft around two key questions:

Why Lovecraft?

Why now?

The answers are complex and paradoxical. Lovecraft is a controversial writer, but his newfound fame should lead to better research, criticism, and understanding. For me, much of the current appeal lies in the excitement and power of sharing an imaginative space, the kind Michael Saler describes in his insightful book As If. If that’s the positive reason, there’s also a negative one: a pervasive fear of death. As Lovecraft writes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature, “the one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

In Lovecraft, anything is possible but death remains inevitable—and is always lurking just outside the door.


Carl H. Sederholm is professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University. Sederholm is co-editor, with Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, of The Age of Lovecraft

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Looking back: Breast cancer activist Barbara Brenner on cancer wristbands

Barbara Brenner, a key figure in North American breast cancer history, wrote the following piece in 2005 as a Perspective for the San Francisco public radio station KQED. Brenner died in 2013. So Much to Be Done, an anthology of her political and personal writings, has been published by University of Minnesota Press.


Anyone who knows that I’m a breast cancer activist knows that you won’t find me wearing pink paraphernalia, let alone one of the Livestrong wristbands from Lance Armstrong. While I don’t wear one, it did strike me when the yellow wristbands first appeared that they are visual evidence of the number of people who are living with cancer in the United States.

But that’s not the visual effect we’re getting. Instead, we’re seeing a whole rainbow of wristbands, including the pink ones signifying—you guessed it—breast cancer. Dr. Susan Love is raising funds with one; Target is selling “Share Beauty, Spread Hope” bands; and the Komen Foundation offers its very own “Sharing the Promise” version.

As a breast cancer activist, I’m concerned that, once again, the breast cancer movement is separating itself from the rest of the cancer world. This might sound strange, coming from someone who works for a breast cancer organization and who’s been living with this disease for 12 years. But I hear from increasing numbers of people that breast cancer gets a disproportionate amount of attention, especially when the incidence of many other cancers is also on the rise. And I’m worried that things like these pink wristbands will only add to a growing sense and frustration that breast cancer advocates don’t see themselves as part of a larger cancer community. For once, can’t breast cancer advocates be trees living in the forest of folks living with cancer?

I think we do everyone a great disservice when we separate ourselves in unnecessary ways. Would there be some harm in people who care about breast cancer wearing a yellow wristband? Is there anything gained by separating ourselves with pink ones? Can’t we sometimes work with a bigger vision that sees what we have in common instead of what separates us?

Like many people, I’m inspired by Lance Armstrong. I’m also inspired by the many women who continue to live their lives despite breast cancer and other cancers. Instead of a colored wristband, I wear a button that says, “Cancer Sucks,” which speaks to everyone’s experience with the disease. The language isn’t pretty, but neither is cancer.


Barbara Brenner was executive director of the nonprofit organization Breast Cancer Action, based in San Francisco. She died in 2013 at the age of sixty-one.

Several events are planned in the San Francisco area and elsewhere around the launch this month of So Much to Be Done, an anthology of Brenner's writings. Click here for a full list of events.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Remembering the fierce thinker and jazz historian Albert Murray, who would have turned 100 today.

Albert Murray (1916–2013), renowned jazz historian, critic, writer, social and cultural theorist, and cofounder (with Wynton Marsalis) of Jazz at Lincoln Center, would have turned 100 years old today. We remember him with an edited excerpt from Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (May 2016).


"In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing"
Edited excerpt from an interview with Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas: Could you go a little deeper into the concepts of folk art, popular art, and fine art?

Albert Murray: The three levels of sophistication or technical mastery involved in the processing of raw experience into aesthetic statement. That's a whole encyclopedia right there. Art is a means by which raw experience is stylized—goes through a process by which we mean stylized—into aesthetic statement. The style is the statement. In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing. Involved in that would be degrees of the control of the medium that you're working in. Some guy comes up with a poem—but they don't know grammar, they can't pronounce the words, they don't know syntax—that's going to be folk level, man. A good example would be, somebody says [sings in blues cadence]: You be my baby, and I'll be your man. Not "If you will be my baby." That's folk level, we can tell. It's pronounced on a folk level. It can be very moving, very authentic—but it's limited. It's an acquired taste for a more sophisticated person, like a cruder recipe. Now, you get a guy saying [singing]: Is you is or is you ain't my baby? [1944 Louis Jordan song] That's bad grammar, but it's pop. You  know that's not folk. The guy's kidding. "Are you or aren't you my baby?" That won't work. He wants to be very close to the earth. [singing] Is you is or is you ain't my baby? The way you acting lately makes me doubt you is still my baby, baby. The way you say "baby," that's some country shit. But you could do that in a fifteen dollar or twenty-five dollar cover charge place. These other guys out there strumming, that's another thing, they got a tin cup in the town square on Friday afternoon. Now, the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement would be: [hums Ellington's "Rocks in My Bed"] That's the blues on another level. Technically more refined. More complex, more difficult to play. More complete control over the means of expression.

GT: Some of what [Constance] Rourke was counterstating was some of [T. S.] Eliot's elitist conceptions or I guess maybe the stereotype of Matthew Arnold's conception of culture. They also had a conception of, say, "fine art." But it seems to me that Constance Rourke was trying to privilege and focus on the folk form and the popular form.

AM: It's a dynamic that you want to get that adds up to Constance Rourke. What she discovered, as I understand it, was a principle for the definition of culture that was derived from the German philosopher Herder. It gave her insight into the fact that cultures develop. They come from the ground up, not from on-high down. Most people were lamenting that there was no high culture. You forget, these were barbarians—Europe in the Dark Ages. When you come out of that, they've got an art form. They've got the gothic cathedrals, they've got these goddamn vitraux, the stained-glass windows. They've got scholarship, although it's on sacred texts and so forth. Then, when they get to the Renaissance period, they rediscover Rome and Greece. Then they have a broader context of what they're doing. These guys had been all the way from savagery all the way up to Praxiteles to the Parthenon to Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—all these refinements. Then you had all these extensions of that because the Romans could reach over there and get it. The Greeks were still around, for them. Any great Roman family had a Greek master. And they went around acting like Greeks. Just like classy Americans acted British and would speak with a slightly British accent, like that Boston thing. Well, that's the way that I understand it—that educated Romans spoke like Greeks. Which makes all the sense in the world, doesn't it? One is able to look at it this way because of the dynamic that Constance Rourke revealed. Extension, elaboration, and refinement—it's not just bootlegging something in.

GT: Process, continuum.

AM: You can see it in Mark Twain! He's a half-assed newspaperman, he writes about what he knows about, he's writing a fairly simple report, but the storytelling thing takes over at a certain point—and he's into art! He made the steps. You can see it. Whitman!—you've gotta make it out of this and it's gotta be like this. So when you've got Moby-Dick—there ain't nothing over there like that. It's a novel, it's not The Iliad and The Odyssey. It's something else. It's a big, thick American book about process. When I was in high school there was nothing like football movies, nothing like college movies. This sweatshirt comes from the 1930s, man! You find that very pragmatic level of how things are done at a given point. Life on the Mississippi—how it is to be a riverboat captain. The romance of it. It's a very practical thing. What's a riverboat captain? But it's transmuted into poetry. What the hell do you get in the first 150 pages of The Seven League Boots? Life on the Mississippi! What you'd call the Life on the Mississippi dimension. Nothing can be more American than "How do they do what they do?"


Albert Murray (1916–2013), author of thirteen books including Stomping the Blues, was a renowned jazz historian, novelist, and social and cultural theorist. He cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987. His finest interviews and essays on music have been compiled into a volume, published this month: Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The politics behind the metabolic health crisis in the United States

Assistant professor in the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University

Our metabolic health crisis—as defined by the conjoined endemics of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity—continues to surprise biomedical researchers, frustrate health experts, and disable and harm millions of people. This week, three news stories illuminate yet again how the most important challenge that the metabolic health crisis presents is not biomedical or scientific, it is political. A political framing of metabolism matters because how we frame and interpret unjust and harmful situations shapes our options for insurrection against those situations.

The first story comes from the intersection of biomedical science and reality television. The New York Times scooped a new study, to be published in the journal Obesity, reporting that contestants on NBC’s reality TV show The Biggest Loser regained the weight they lost after the show’s end because of metabolic changes induced by extreme dieting and exercise. As reported by Gina Kolata:

It has to do with resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns when at rest. When the show began, the contestants, though hugely overweight, had normal metabolisms for their size, meaning they were burning a normal number of calories for people of their weight. When it ended, their metabolisms had slowed radically and their bodies were not burning enough calories to maintain their thinner sizes.

The extraordinary plasticity of a body’s metabolism was a surprise for these obesity researchers and it certainly raises questions about how overweight people should go about achieving what are thought to be “healthy weights.” Yet, the biomedical claim that an overweight body is always an unhealthy body is more contentious than productions like The Biggest Loser would suggest. Scholars have interpreted the obesity problem as a socially induced moral panic that pathologizes overweight bodies and targets them for constant biomedical intervention and ethical judgment. Treating metabolism as an individual biomedical problem makes it more difficult to diagnose the metabolic health crisis as a social and political problem that impacts entire populations of organisms in patterned ways.

This biomedical finding may also prove disheartening for millions of overweight people who struggle to lose weight and keep it off. As Kolata says, “Despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.” In this conceptualization, the body’s metabolism acts as an agent, conspiring against us to produce embodiments that we don’t want. Equally disheartening, in my view, is the narrow way in which metabolism is constructed as a biomedical process found only in the body and its biochemicals (for example, Kolata features the hormone leptin). In contrast to interpreting metabolism at the level of an individual body, obesity researchers would be wise to incorporate a concept of social metabolism into their theoretical world. The bodies featured on The Biggest Loser don’t exist in a sociological vacuum—they exist within a corporate food regime that makes it next to impossible to eat well in order to be healthy and a corporate pharmaceutical regime that crowds out alternative modes of healing bodies. All too often, the companies that produce and regulate food and drugs in our society are seen as bit actors in the grand play of social metabolism rather than as occupying the leading roles.

This leads me to a second story, which digs into the ways that government regulatory practices shape population and ecological health. The Guardian reports that lobbyists for the United Egg Producers, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council are urging Congress to soften Freedom of Information Act laws that force the government to report when the food industry lobbies the United States Department of Agriculture in the form of financing for “checkoff” programs—the sort that are responsible for marketing campaigns like “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” The bill containing this regulatory change is merely proposed at this point, but it signals an ongoing dynamic in which food industries seek to obscure their involvements in shaping government policies that structure our food environment. These companies are able to produce low-cost, industrially manufactured animal products because of vast government subsidies given to other agribusiness that produce corn and soy—two key ingredients in animal feed. These covert actions work to conceal the political problem posed by metabolism and make it hard to resist government regulatory practices that shape population and ecological health. As long as individual bodies remain the target of metabolic intervention (like the highly visible bodies on The Biggest Loser) and not corporations, we are in deep, deep trouble.

But, there is room for hope. A third story cuts against the historical grain created by the biopolitics of metabolism, this one involving the colonial manufacture of sugar in Hawaii. As reported first in January and again in April, the Hawaiian Corporate and Sugar Company has planted its last sugar crop on the island of Maui. This 144-year old vestige of the old colonial sugar production system has determined that it is no longer profitable to use its stolen land for sugar monoculture and instead intends to diversify farming operations into new commodities like sorghum, fruits, and bio-mass. Native Hawaiian activist Tiare Lawrence has called for the land to be returned to the people of Maui so that more sustainable agricultural practices can be implemented like family-scale organic farming and agroforestry. Given the role that sugar plays in the ongoing metabolic crises, both at the level of individual biology and social ecology, this development in Maui signals possibilities for what can take place when institutions that produce inequality are (at least potentially) dismantled and replaced by locally organized social systems that aim to benefit the common people.

These seemingly disparate stories are connected through profound political transformations that link biomedicine and agriculture together. These developments illuminate the biopolitics of metabolism, a term that encompasses the ideas, social practices, and institutional relationships that govern the metabolic health of individuals and groups. In the biopolitics of metabolism, we essentially have a political problem that gets dressed up as a scientific problem, but we have to recognize that the scientific is always a political problem. The convergence of the individualization of metabolism and the concealment of the social dimensions of metabolism have created a context in which solutions to metabolic crises are increasingly understood as a problem of either more technocientific medicine or more transparent government regulations. But, these two pathways have always worked together as mechanisms of biosocial control. Perhaps we should start crafting new political stories about metabolism that help to break this pattern of understanding.


Anthony Ryan Hatch is author of Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America. He is assistant professor in the Science and Society Program at Wesleyan University.

"Bearing personal witness from the frontiers of the quantified self, Anthony Ryan Hatch offers a reimagining of metabolism as a form of social knowledge. Blood Sugar makes a key contribution to our understanding of the evolution of racial health disparities."
—Alondra Nelson, author of
The Social Life of DNA and Body and Soul