Category Archives: the real thing

February 11, 2014, 8:27 pm

Glass, thick and thin


Chuck Close, Phil (1969)

For a long time, I have detested the music of Philip Glass. As a teenager, I was swept away by Koyaanisqatsi in the theater (more because the images were new to me, and the dystopian picture of modern life sympathetic, than because of the music, however fitting), but under several influences came to dislike the blunt, in-your-face rigidity of his minimalism, preferring the Steve Reich of Music For 18 Musicians or the Morton Feldman of Rothko Chapel. I went 25 years without changing my mind, snickering at the unflattering Glass segment of Peter Greenaway’s documentary Four American Composers, sighing at the redundancy of the film scores — but a year or so ago, listening to the radio, I found myself rapt again.

Glass by Steve Pyke

Glass by Steve Pyke

The piece was Glass’s Symphony No. 9. It’s repetitive (what would …

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September 6, 2010, 2:26 pm

Keynes's conference and Morgenthau's dream.

Both the American and British chief delegates to the Bretton Woods conference were tall bald men, but there the similarity between them came to an end, and even in respect of their height they stood differently. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., hung on his own frame like a picture crookedly strung on a hook, while John Maynard Keynes wore his stature as comfortably as his tailored suits. Although Keynes was the older man, his powerful new ideas made Morgenthau look ever more like a relic. As Secretary of the Treasury since 1934, Morgenthau had helped engineer the New Deal. But as Keynesianism swept the policymaking landscape, Morgenthau became more old-fashioned, insisting that whatever Keynes might claim about deficit spending, the government ought to try a balanced budget—though between the Depression and the Second World War Morgenthau never presided over one. A cruelly witty Cambridge…

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September 26, 2009, 1:21 pm

Where I’m coming from and bound to.

Sometimes as historians we have reason to sum up our careers to date and make a projection forward as to what we’re doing next. Here’s mine. I don’t think this will really interest people for discussion, so I’m putting it below the fold by backdating it 72 hours, and people who read the blog on the web probably won’t notice it. Those of you who get these posts on RSS will of course see it presented as if it were fresh and intriguing; sorry about that.


August 28, 2009, 11:54 am

History mystery: the Oregon land fraud and the Republican nomination of 1912.

In the Report of the Public Lands Commission published 1905, you will find this discreet description of land fraud beginning on page v:

Under the act of June 3, 1878, generally known as the timber and stone act, there has lately been an unusual increase in the number of entries, which can not be accounted for by an increase in the demands of commerce or by any unusual settlement of the localities in which the greater part of the entries were made. … The law was enacted to meet the demands of settlers, miners, and others for timber and stone for building, mining, and other purposes. There is much evidence, however, going to show that many entries have been made for purposes not contemplated by Congress. … The Commission believes that Congress did not intend that this law should be used for the acquisition of large tracts of valuable timber land by individuals or corporations, but it…

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June 22, 2009, 4:20 pm

on solidarity

I came to political awareness (well, relatively speaking) in the late 1970s, so one of the first foreign “uprisings” I can remember following was the Danzig shipyard strike, culminating Aug. 31, 1980, in the official recognition formation of the trade union Solidarity (Solidarność). It was tremendously stirring to follow from abroad, not least because of good graphic design — in the Polish tradition, starting with the beautiful, “casual” but unmistakable Solidarity logo itself, by Jerzy (Jurek) Janiszewszki. As several have lately commented, the struggle there and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc had a certain polarity with respect to the United States: the regime(s) were broadly anti-American, the popular movements were to some degree philo-American, etc. Yet even then, vicarious participation at the level possible to me in Los Angeles seemed practically pointless.

How much more so to…

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January 23, 2009, 11:45 pm

after all, a place for the genuine

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each…

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November 9, 2008, 1:10 am

Removed by Angelic Hosts

Jay DeFeo, during the removal of The Rose

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San…

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October 23, 2008, 5:40 pm

RFC bank stock outstanding.

If you watched the video on Understanding the Financial Crisis, you know I got asked a question something like, when did the RFC retire its bank stock. And I said, well, they’d got rid of about a quarter of it in 1935-36, but I don’t know how long it took to get rid of all of it.

I couldn’t find the answer in any obvious place, so I spent a couple hours this morning pulling it out of the Federal Reserve Bulletin 1932 onwards, and a couple of later audit reports tendered to Congress. I include it here for your interest. (Of course once I post it, I’m confident someone will point out that this is readily available in such-and-such standard reference work, but hey, such is the wages of research.) Most of the figures are as of Oct 31 of the year; the last two figures are as of June 30 and include a bit more than just the preferred stock—also notes and debentures.

Here’s what an…

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October 10, 2008, 2:39 pm

(Very) short reading list: unemployment in the 1930s.

This is a lesson in reading the notes.

Begin with

Carter, Susan B. , “Labor force, employment, and unemployment: 1890–1990.” Table Ba470-477 in Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, edited by Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Read the footnotes! Then have a look at

Weir, David R. “A Century of U.S. Unemployment, 1890-1990: Revised Estimates and Evidence for Stabilization.” Research in Economic History 14 (1992): 301-346.

And, well, you could stop right there, but that would be missing the fun. But inasmuch as neither of these sources is easy to get hold of, let me explain why this is such a fun topic.

Used to be, the unemployment series for the 1930s looked like this:

This is from a series…

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October 8, 2008, 12:25 pm

Short reading list: the Federal Reserve System.

Because I’ve been asked a couple times in the past few weeks, here’s a short reading list on the history of the Federal Reserve System.

Start with

Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Read pp. 236-266 and also 471n125.

With this in mind one may then profitably turn to some of the following, depending on your particular interests.

Friedman, Milton and Anna Jacobson Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963. Particularly chapters 4-8.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. Money: Whence it Came, Where it Went. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Particularly chapter 10.

Meltzer, Allan H. A History of the Federal Reserve, 1913-1951. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.


Dewey, Davis Rich. Financial History…

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September 25, 2008, 2:00 pm

A fair question.

Sometime commenter and (as Henry Farrell says) one of the Internetses’ smartest guys Cosma Shalizi has kindly listed my Blessed Among Nations on his list of “Books To Read While the Algae Grows in Your Fur” (also known, perhaps less slothishly, as “Books I’ve read in the last month or so and feel I can recommend”). So I think it’s only fair to respond to his query, which is so astute that only my colleague Kathy Olmsted has previously raised it. To wit:

Rauchway seems to find it unproblematic that a certain set of institutions should form Back In The Day, when they fit conditions … and then tend to survive later, when they did not fit so well. But I would like some explanation of why adaptive processes had an easier time working in the earlier period, as opposed to the later one.

Here is what I think I think, if I understand the question correctly:

In the earlier period the US…

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August 29, 2008, 5:06 am

Nixonland panel liveblogging.

At the American Political Science Association annual meeting, in Boston’s Hynes convention center, room 107.

7:58 All the panelists have their laptops up and open. Henry has brought donuts to entice the audience.

For an 8AM panel, there’s pretty good attendance—30-or-so people [by 8:15, more like 35; if this trickling keeps up, I'll have the biggest audience of the panelists] in a room that might hold 50—I think we call this the Krugman effect. Or else it’s the donuts.

Krugman will talk first, then Pierson, McCarty and me.

Perlstein sees my laptop screen and says, “Hi Mom!”

June 17, 2008, 4:10 pm

James Gregory on Wallace.

Since some folks asked, James Gregory on “variable 666” and white migration from the South:


June 17, 2008, 12:01 am

Variable 666.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Democratic Party lost its once-solid southern bloc to the Republicans. In truth historians often overstate the solidity of the South. Democrats of the South split from their national brethren whenever the party took a step toward its more cosmopolitan wing. It happened in 1928, when the Democrats nominated a Catholic of mixed ancestry to the presidency; in 1948, when President Truman moved a short step or two toward “securing these rights,” as championed by Hubert Humphrey; in 1960, when the Democrats nominated another Catholic who was somewhat less indifferent to Civil Rights than the white South would have liked; in 1964, by which time the Johnson administration had committed itself to “enforcing the right to vote”; and in 1968, when the Democrats could no longer pretend they weren’t serious about this Civil Rights business and nominated Humphrey…

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June 15, 2008, 7:35 pm

The Lessons of Insomnia I: MTV Obliges Jameson

(Being the first in what I pray will not be a series, as I like my sanity and would prefer to keep it intact.)

The Real World holds the dubious honor of being first in the post-1990 tsunami of reality television.  The premise was simple: seven strangers were picked to live in a house &c. &c. &c. and start being real.  The show never tried to live up to its name.  Canny viewers could watch the manufactured controversies being produced in the booth weeks before hostilities spontaneously erupted. 


The pretense of the show was that it was unscripted and unrehearsed.  It was not some sitcom filmed in a West Hollywood back-lot in which a middle-class family dealt with generic adolescent, senescent, menopausal and mid-life crises to the pitch-corrected laughter of the ideal studio audience.  It was real

So you can imagine my surprise when I flipped on the latest installment of The …

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