In the American imagination, the Russians are a vodka-loving people, every last one of them. They gargle with it. They water their plants with it. Their cars run on it. Is any of this true? Who cares? It feeds a treasured stereotype—the plump, stoical Russian, in some kind of furry ushanka, swilling that sweet, sweet fermented potato distillate until the first glimmer of dawn sweeps across the desolate, frozen Soviet horizon.
But get this: not all Russians drink. It’s true! Even Tolstoy himself, one of the few Russians that Americans pretend to know and care about, eschewed the bottle. After his wild, drunken youth, he founded a temperance society, the Union Against Drunkenness, and he hoped to affix a label to all vodka bottles marking them as poison—with a skull and crossbones, the whole works. In an 1890 essay called “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” he comes off as a total killjoy: Read More
A calendar for 1977 by the British art collective See Red Women’s Workshop shows the month of February as a chutes-and-ladders-type “game for working women.” Wealthy daddies and husbands can help the player swiftly advance, but the game’s hazards are many: “Careers officer suggests domestic science,” “Trouble finding nursery—needs part-time work,” “Shopping in lunch hour, housework in evening—exhausted.” Even the end of the game is booby-trapped: “Over 40, promotion given to younger man.”
The other months in the calendar spin out the game’s thematic pitfalls: racism, sexual orientation, housework drudgery, social-service cuts. August exhorts women of different ethnicities to unite and organize against the National Front. November excoriates the discomfort inherent in beauty regimens—girdles, waxing, heels. September revises a child’s primer so that Jane thinks, “Stuff this! It’s about time I got myself out these sexist books and started giving girls an example of all the other things we can do!”
Jane’s purposeful finger to the patriarchy embodies the aim of See Red. In 1974, a group of women answered an ad calling for those in the visual arts to gather to help promote the women’s liberation movement and counter the prevailing negative images of women in advertising and the media. Like many women at the time, the members of See Red were disillusioned with the Left; the story they relate is an old one: “We found ourselves marginalized within these campaigns and were expected to stay in the background, keep quiet and make the tea.” The members worked collectively and non-hierarchically: from idea to concept to design to production, decisions and process were undertaken as a group. Notably, the new book See Red Women’s Workshop: Feminist Posters 1974–1990 lists no authors in the front matter, and the essay detailing the group’s history is written in the first-person plural. Read More
- In 1858, Walt Whitman made an impassioned contribution to a series called Manly Health and Training, a kind of precursor to the self-help movement. In the piece, newly rediscovered, he implores the young men of his day to pursue lives of fervid activity, and to avoid indigestion. “To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he says. “Up!” As the New York Times notes, “Whitman’s first installment strikes a vatic, exclamatory note: ‘Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?’ he writes, before outlining the path to ‘a perfect body, a perfect blood.’ That torrent of advice that follows touches on sex, war, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol, shaving, and the perils of ‘too much brain action and fretting,’ in sometimes rambling prose.”
- While we’re on dead white male writers: Is it time to release Rudyard Kipling from detention? True, he was a racist, colonialist naïf who had the gall to speak of the white man’s burden, but The Jungle Book isn’t as bad as all that, Malcolm Jones writes: “The Jungle Book stories were not written by Colonel Blimp. They are not propaganda. They have no agenda. And they are not, in fact, even very optimistic at heart. If anything, Kipling’s tales quietly but inescapably leave their readers with a chilly view of life—nasty, poor, brutish, and short (except for elephants, who live practically forever). First and last, the Mowgli stories condemn all humans as foolish, superstitious, mean-spirited, and full of hubris, specifically for our propensity to assume superiority over the animal kingdom … The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and it’s usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Pondering how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the assumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live.”
- There was a time, roughly a quarter century ago, when one would hear the phrase “I feel like” only in catchy ads for Chicken Tonight. But now the phrase is everywhere, leaving our discourse awash in subjectivity. As Molly Worthen writes, “ ‘I feel like’ masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too—but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks … The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction—and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction—between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.”
- If your goal is to shake the education system to its bedrock, upending the very notion of a curriculum and doing away with universities as we know them … you’re gonna need some convincing posters. When Maurice Stein and Larry Miller wrote the Blueprint for Counter Education, they were sure to spruce up all that talk of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Luc Godard with some impressive visuals, now collected in a new edition of the book. “Surrounded by charts, the participant will be confronted by ideas and issues that compel him to interact with everything going on around him—from movies, to riots, to political campaigns,” the introduction reads. “There is no text book, no syllabus, no final exam … THE REVOLUTION BEGINS HERE.”
- Reading Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On Love,” Kathryn Harrison was struck by the line “For darkness restores what the light cannot repair”: “The line also defines writing, at least writing the way I experience it. For me, writing is a process that demands cerebral effort, but it’s also one informed by the unconscious. My work is directed by the needs of my unconscious. And through that dark, opaque process, I can restore what might otherwise be lost … I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: ‘Please stop thinking.’ But people really write better without thinking, by which I mean without self-consciousness.”
“I have never been part of the London literary scene,” Christopher Logue said in his 1993 Art of Poetry interview:
My time has been passed with painters, antique dealers, musicians, booksellers, journalists, actors, and film people. I find it natural to collaborate with others on such things as posters, songs, films, shows. This is unusual in literary London.
This collaborative spirit led him to reproduce his poems on all kinds of unlikely surfaces: mugs, beermats, T-shirts, mirrors, Tube station walls, Lake District concrete, and the silk lining of at least one gown. But Logue, who died in 2011, found his biggest success with his poster poems, a form he’s said to have invented. Read More
- Looking for good summer reading? Our editor, Lorin Stein, went on NPR’s On Point to discuss the season’s best books.
- Between 1935 and the early forties, the WPA issued some two million silkscreened posters. Whatever their subjects and intentions—some were public health initiatives, others supported the parks, and others still were straight-up propaganda—the posters, in their ubiquity, had a profound effect on graphic design and commercial art. “The surge of interest in new typographical design and the influence of the WPA Poster Project’s supervisor, Richard Floethe, had a dynamic effect on the project designers. Floethe had studied at the Bauhaus and genuinely believed in a utilitarian approach to art. The designer, he felt, should be equally at home in industrial design, stage design, typography or painting. Good visual thinking could be applied to any discipline.”
- If there’s one thing unifying the work Astrid Lindgren, it’s her “affection for the defiant self-possession of some children”: “There is a manuscript scholars call the ‘Ur-Pippi,’ the first draft of the Pippi Longstocking stories that Lindgren, then a young mother, wrote in the 1940s. The original Pippi was more truly a classic trickster … In order to tame that Pippi slightly for public consumption, Lindgren’s publisher persuaded her to tone the story down … For example, Pippi actually apologizes to the schoolteacher she has defied and does not, in her madcap rescue of children from a burning building, accidentally-on-purpose smash a chamber pot (as she did in the draft).”
- Fun fact: our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, is in a band. They’re called Life of Saturdays. We hadn’t known this until earlier today, when we found a review of their debut album So How We Seem in the Wilmington Star News: “Sullivan’s distinctive vocals, which range from a pretty falsetto to a throaty wail, take center stage on rock anthem ‘American Boy.’ Whether it’s about the immaturity of the American male, U.S. imperialism or something else is hard to figure, but nothing can mask the awesomeness of the line, ‘Set my phasers on joy / Because I am an American boy.’”
- Loot, nirvana, pajamas, shampoo, shawl, bungalow, jungle, pundit, thug … how did these and other Indian words come to enter the English language? For clues, look to Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, first published in 1886.