Book Reviews

Shooting From the Hip Book Review

by Paul J. Edwards

Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America by Patricia Vettel-Becker looks at the discourse surrounding photography from the 1930s to the early 1960s. She theorizes that as photography became an industry and an art, it also became a frontier for masculinity. Her goal is to show that photography and the discourse around critics and photographers created several postwar gender norms. Specifically, she examines how constructions of the lone male archetypes in the soldier, the cowboy, and the juvenile delinquent permeated into the idea of the male photographer. Throughout the book, Vettel-Becker creates a history based on expanding photography beyond a consumer product to an art form created within the male sphere. She also looks at the larger scope of commercial photography and photojournalism. Continued.

Nature and Culture Book Review

by George Walter Born

Art historian Barbara Novak boldly brings her field into a fruitful dialogue with intellectual history in Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875.  Pushing back against formalist strictures that had long governed art historical discourse, Novak originally published the book in 1980; since then, it has become a foundational work on the topic.  With an interest in the history of ideas and in “cultural art history,”she seeks “a more ‘ecumenical’ art history” (xxvi) that engages a broader range of concerns than previously. Continued.

American Curiosity Book Review

by Emma Newcombe

In the introduction to her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York University Language and Literature professor Mary Louise Pratt defines the term “contact zone” as an “encounter,” a place of “co-presence, interaction, and interlocking understandings and practices” between an imperial nation and a colony. This idea of the contact zone as a space of colonial contention and interaction resonates throughout Susan Scott Parish’s book, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Continued.

Recovering the Smaller Battles: Overturning the Federal Government’s Ban on Homosexual Employees

by Catherine Martin

When it is taught in schools, gay history is largely presented through the “Big Bang” model of social change.  Like Rosa Parks, the men and women who resisted arrest at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village are seen as a beleaguered minority driven to the breaking point by repeated injustice.  The ensuing explosion expanded across the country and generated the force behind the fight for civil rights.  However, just as Parks’ story was more complicated than a single woman’s decision to not give up her seat on a bus, the Stonewall Riots were merely the most visible in a string of events that led, and are still leading, to increased civil rights for homosexual men and women.  In The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson draws attention to one of the quieter battles in the war over equal rights – the 1975 end of the 25 year ban on homosexual employees in the federal government. Continued.

Print the Legend Book Review

by Sam Palfreyman

In Martha A. Sandweiss’ Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, the author introduces her book as “a story about photography and the American West, a new medium and a new place that came of age together in the nineteenth century.”[1] In her introduction, Sandweiss clarifies that her book is not a comprehensive history of photography in the West, but rather, she narrows her scope of interest to an exploration of public photographs—those used for exhibition, publication, or sale—from the mid-1840s to the early 1890s that portray the West and shaped popular thinking about this mythical region of the North American continent. Continued.

Houses Without Names Book Review

by Gretchen Pineo

“But it doesn’t have to be that way!” That is the refrain in Thomas Hubka’s Houses Without Names (University of Tennessee Press, 2013), challenging the status quo of how and why we look at housing the way we do. The long awaited second volume in the Vernacular Architecture Studies series, edited by Thomas Carter and Anna Vemer Andrzejewski, this volume picks up where Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley left off in Invitation to Vernacular Architecture (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), challenging readers to apply the basic skills presented in IVA to a vast and poorly understood group of buildings – the common house. Continued.

Fumbling Toward Equality: Working-Class Women and the Commercialization of Leisure: Cheap Amusements Book Review

by Catherine Martin

Just as the study of popular culture has only gained serious traction in the academy relatively recently, the study of working-class groups – especially women – has only begun to be addressed in the last few decades.  In part, this has been a problem of sources.  Unlike their middle-class counterparts, working-class men and women left few records of their reactions to and impressions of their experiences with urban industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Continued.

The Pastoral Ideal: The Machine in the Garden Book Review

By Paul J. Edwards

Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden presents a literary history of leading American intellectuals wrestling with the dual nature of the advancing industrial age and the perceived abundance of the American landscape. His purpose “is to describe and evaluate the uses of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience.”[1] To this end, Marx looks to the origin of this ideal in the prose of Virgil to F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, his interest in exploring this ideal follows a select few examples. Early in his introduction he makes the Americanist goal clear: although the focus relies strictly on literature, the concern remains on the culture that creates this ideal. Continued.

An Anti-Empire State of Mind: Black Against Empire Book Review

By Mary Potorti

The burgeoning field of Black Power studies has produced a wealth of innovative and sophisticated treatments of the activists, organizations, and ideas that emerged in the late-1960s offering new and radical visions of racial equality and social justice in the United States.  Much research about Black Power has sought to understand the influence of its driving personalities, to examine specific tactics or ideals of leading organizations, or to elucidate national shifts through studies of social and racial developments in specific locales. Continued.

A Quest for the Cultural Jesus

By George Walter Born

In the context of the present de-centered conception of American Studies, one might logically ask how a scholar might still use a myth-and-symbol approach responsibly to analyze insightfully certain iconic and persistent American themes.  Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, in tackling no less a subject than Americans’ conception of Jesus, goes a long way toward answering this question in his American Jesus, which sparkles with wit, insight, and humor. Continued.