Category Archives: orals

post-orals… fallout?

Hi friends!

I passed my orals!  Woohoo!  This is good for me because it means I don’t have to drop out of grad school and can spend this summer working on my prospectus instead of looking for a full-time job just yet.  It’s also good for you, if you’re studying for your own exams, because it means that the level of info in these book summaries should be sufficient – if you, like me, will just need a basic knowledge of a book’s argument and its main points.  I hope they’re helpful!

That said, after cramming 275 books into my skull last month, I can’t seem to squeeze any more in just yet, so this blog will be on a bit of an academic hiatus until I start dissertation research in June.  In the meantime, if you’d like to check out what I’m doing to decompress (when I’m not out ridin’ bikes), head on over to joshlightnin.com.  I’ve never built a website of any sort before, but hey, learning something detail-oriented seems like a good way to regain some balance.

See you soon!

summer vacation

1: Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest

I’ve spent, oh, probably six hours now with Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, partly because Brinkley has a tendency to jump right into his story without much introductory or concluding material, and partly because he’s built the entire book out of fascinating vignettes and anecdotes – both writing strategies that make Voices hard to skim.  It’s ok, though: it’s New Years Day, it’s chilly outside, I have coffee and tea and a space heater.  And besides, as it turns out, attempts to explain the popularity of charismatic leaders mostly make for good reading.

Brinkley’s goal with this book is to determine why, exactly, Huey Long and Father Coughlin became so popular and thus so politically powerful that FDR considered them threatening, even dangerous.  Why would FDR care about a US Senator from Louisiana (Long) and a radio priest from a Detroit suburb (Coughlin?)

I can’t say that Brinkley satisfactorily answers that question for me.  He argues that in the depths of the Depression, in a newly industrialized nation with a brand new mass culture, both men told the people what they wanted to hear: that bankers, financiers, and the extremely wealthy had stolen their communities and their individuality, and that only through a redistribution of wealth could they get their old lives back.  The argument sounds like something from one of my old marketing profs: if you want people to listen to you, go stand in the middle of a highway and point in the direction of traffic.  I don’t have a problem with the argument so much – hey, I think my marketing prof was onto something – but I’m not crazy about how Brinkley goes about proving it.  Why?

Well, mostly, it’s the way he approaches his subjects.  Take his portrayal of Huey Long.  According to Brinkley, Long was a loud guy, a partier and a political steamroller who had mad skillz at getting people to do whatever he told them to do.  He dropped out of high school, worked as a travelling salesman for a few years, and then convinced Tulane to let him into their law school – where instead of going to class, he read for a year and passed the bar with ease.  His wild campaigns for office were equal parts bribery, flyering, making stump speeches, and spewing vitriol at the competition.  After only a year as governor of Louisiana, his patronage system had created such a cohesive political machine that it took him an average of three minutes to get a bill passed in the state legislature, and even janitors, bridge builders, and schoolteachers sang his praises lest he replace them with a more loyal party member.  Party members paid their dues via automatic payroll deductions, as a horrified Treasury Department discovered in a 1932 investigation. 

But despite his flagrant disregard for, oh, normal democratic things like voting and separation of powers, he cared immensely about the people; those bills that took three minutes a piece to pass were for things like roads, new hospitals, and textbooks.  In the depths of the Depression, he was convinced that the money was somewhere, most likely in the pockets of the rich, and he was determined to get some of it for his constituents.  His falling-out with FDR was over his “Share the Wealth” plan, which called for an income cap, a radical redistribution of wealth, guaranteed pensions, and more.  As a Senator, he helped get the first woman elected to a full US Senate term.  Like, he was too nice.  Ok, a lot of this was probably self-serving, but still, reading about this guy is like watching Lincoln: I’m still wondering how such altruism, such egotism, and such obvious corruption could coexist so easily in the same body.

And Brinkley, kinda like Spielberg, doesn’t really tell us.  It’s like he’s so busy focusing on Long that he forgets about the many people he worked with to make the magic happen, or like his sources (which, from what I can tell, are mostly newspapers and other publicly available sources?) don’t have any info on the nitty gritty of creating a political machine so powerful that you think you can manipulate FDR into doing your bidding (he tried.  It didn’t work.  And then he mysteriously got killed.  Weird.)  And for the love of god, who was he?  Brinkley mentions that Long travelled with an entourage because he hated to be touched and, later in the book, that he had few, if any, close friends; he also seems to have been well-known in DC clubs and bars until he abruptly quit drinking in 1935.  His wife and three children are hardly mentioned at all.  This is all unexplained.  Was he human?  Or just some symbolic, evacuated hull of power?

If it’s the latter, then we’re in Ernesto Laclau territory, where a public figure (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Obama) is less a person than a receptacle for other people’s hopes and dreams.  Laclau’s approach is a useful way to get at the cultural meaning(s) of a public figure, but I’m not sure how good it is for charting the mechanics of their popularity or the trajectory of their rise and fall.

54 books in 31 days

Happy New Year!!

It’s crunch time!  My comprehensive exams are set for the third week of April.  With three months and about 160 books to go, I’m trying a few new strategies: 

In past semesters, I’ve spent hours putting together semester-long reading lists that have me reading books by topic, so I’ll spend a week on suburbia, one on slavery, one on social histories of the colonies, one on transportation (yay!) and so on.  That works pretty well, since it means that the books are often speaking to each other – different historians writing about slavery at different points in our own history, for instance, use widely different methodologies, ask different questions, and come up with very different answers. 

BUT, this semester, since I have so much reading to do, I’m trying a much more straightforward approach: regular old alphabetical order.  I’m hoping for more variety and more cross-pollination among fields and topics.  That, and there’s something nice about working your way down a list instead of jumping around on it.

I’m also only writing out my reading schedule one month at a time, which makes this whole task feel a lot less daunting.  Hence, by January 31st, I’ll be 54 books in.  (sweet jesus!)

And finally, whereas I usually just take notes on the book and my impressions of it and file them away somewhere, for the next 90 days, I’ll be posting daily updates of my progress.  I’m doing this partly because written turnovers have been a great accountability tool at every job I’ve ever held, partly to show potential future grad students what grad school is really like (hah), and partly to stay in touch with the folks I love for the next three months.  🙂

So please don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing, but do let me know when you check in!

doing math

By my not-so-loose reckoning, I have 160 books left and about 90 days in which to read them.  This amounts to about fifty-four books per month, which means 8 hours or so of reading per day.

Today I am (annoyingly unsuccessfully) researching labor history.  Tomorrow, I’ll probably make up a reading schedule for the next month.  On the second, it’s go time.