EDITORS’ NOTE: Happy Sunday! Today we're thrilled to have brought in writer and historian Jacqui Shine as this week's guest editor.
Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, The Awl, the Lapham’s Quarterly blog, Pacific Standard, the Chicago Reader, The Sun, New York Magazine's Vulture, the Boston Review, The Toast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Longreads, the New Republic, Men's Journal, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Her story on the history of the New York Times' Style Section was nominated for a 2015 Mirror Award for excellence in media industry reporting. She was a Nonfiction Scholar at the 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference; she also reads manuscripts for the magazine. She was awarded a 2015 Ragdale Foundation residency, and she has taught and read at the Chautauqua Institution, the Dikeou Collection, and the late, lamented Bad Advice from Bad Women series.
She holds a freshly inked Ph.D. in U.S. history from UC Berkeley. Her dissertation tells the story of how American policing invented itself through popular culture; one of her friends called it "surprisingly enjoyable"! She's also a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She lives in Chicago. Her earliest career influences were Nick News with Linda Ellerbee and Harriet the Spy.
And now, the newsletter is hers!
Hi, good people!
This Sunday Long Read is front-loaded with culture writing and cultural history, because these are my preoccupations. It’s a weird time to be doing this work, honestly, because cultural reporting is not what we grab on the way out of this burning house. But maybe it should be.
I think writing and thinking about culture (in the broadest terms) is a profoundly important and valuable practice in society, for many reasons. It’s easy to discount culture writing as frivolous or less relevant or less important than other kinds of writing (e.g. “hard journalism,” lol). People argue that it tells us less about the world we live in, that it offers fewer vital questions or answers, that it is insufficient for documenting the things we witness. The appeal of such thinking may be defensive. It protects us from having to acknowledge that words—other, better, more substantive or serious words—aren’t always enough, either. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “For a long while I treated my pen as my sword: now I realize how helpless we are.” (DO NOT WORRY, I have not read any Sartre besides this quotation.) I think we’re all touched by the vertigo of this helplessness these days, at least sometimes.
I’m still working this thought out, so bear with me, but: I believe that when we treat writing and thinking about our cultural lives as less relevant, we actually cede ground to those who wish to weaponize culture in order to seize power. We endanger so much of what matters to us as a society. It’s a kind of alienation from our shared values and agreements.
I generally have mixed feelings about the efficacy of this particular historical comparison as a way of understanding what’s happening around us today, but many people find it useful, so we’ll go with it. Bluntly, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was abetted in part by reshaping arts and culture in line with fascist ideologies. The film director and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl was a pivotal figure in the Third Reich. Maybe this is overly dramatic, but it’s also worth remembering that a certain former White House chief strategist and man of many shirts made a go of it in Hollywood in an earlier life.
So! That said, here’s some of what I read and loved this week. Many of these stories are about culture, but they are also stories about politics, economics, the arts, science and medicine, and social geography. They are just as concerned with the Big Questions we’re facing about the future of American democracy, press freedom, and the alarming rise of reactionary politics as any of the other powerful stories we’ve devoured lately.
Thank you to Don & Jacob for handing over the keys so I can drive this newsletter like I stole it. I told them we were gonna get weird this week, and I hope I’ve delivered. I also wanted to tell you that beginning next month, I’ll be living my highest purpose and recapping the Murphy Brown reboot for Vulture. Please join me!! I have so many Important Thoughts to share!!
For Time’s special issue on the American South, Ward reflects on what brought her home to Mississippi and the hope, despair, joy, and struggle that keep her there. This is a gorgeous, clear-eyed, and powerful essay about the ways in which “this illness of racial violence and oppression affects all of us, not just in Mississippi, but throughout the South, America and abroad.” But, she adds, in Mississippi we also see a way forward: “Even as the South remains troubled by its past, there are people here who are fighting so it can find its way to a healthier future, never forgetting the lessons of its long, brutal history, ever present, ever instructive.”
Come to think of it, a crooked cop scamming a major corporation out of millions through a contest based upon an unabashedly capitalist board game is a pretty American story, too! (So’s the delicious unraveling of the whole thing through the application of FBI shoe leather.) Anyway, what I'm really trying to say is that one man(afort)’s $15,000 ostrich jacket is another man’s order of the entire menu at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Here, Kate Knibbs argues that Tom Cruise's iconic 2005 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show marked a crucial moment in the development of the viral internet. This early memetic moment portended a structural economic shift away from Hollywood gatekeeping and toward "a more democratic and chaotic media landscape,” fueled by the simultaneous rise of gossip blogs, the launch of YouTube, and "a shift in how celebrity freakouts were covered.” Knibbs argues that Cruise eventually recovered; for another perspective, revisit SLR contributing editor Anne Helen Petersen’s 2015 analysis of the effect the episode had on his career.
First there was the talkie, and then there was the smellie. In the 1950s, Hollywood execs, worried about the effect the rise of television would have on movie-going efforts, took a chance on Smell-O-Vision. The cast of characters includes Aldous Huxley, Gypsy Rose Lee, Elizabeth Taylor, and a "world-renowned osmologist" who lost it all in pursuit of his dream.
On the subject of smells: When I took my qualifying exams in graduate school years ago, one of my reading lists focused on 19th century urban history. This meant, among other things, that I read a lot about city sanitation, sewage, and public health, and I delighted in the long history of man’s effort to monetize poop. The fact that we are still trying to put poop to higher purposes strikes me as a daffy and charming example of our conviction that we can overcome human limitations through ingenuity and hope. Also, because it’s 2018, something something this shitty world something something.
A Yiddish studies professor and a musician have revived the astonishing work of folklorist Moisei Beregovsky, who worked during World War II to document the hundreds of Yiddish songs composed by men, women, and children that addressed "the deep insanity and terror of life during the Holocaust." New Yorker music critic Petrusich details the history of the songs and the making of an anthology of new recordings released last year; you can listen to a few of the songs on Soundcloud.
Bonus: Here’s another story of the fugitive reach of music under repressive circumstances.
Path-breaking jazz pianist Hazel Scott spent her career breaking barriers in music and entertainment, refusing to play segregated nightclubs and to take on demeaning stereotypical roles in films. She was at the height of her powers when the House Un-American Activities Committee accused her of being a Communist sympathizer in 1950: She’d recently become the first Black woman to host her own television show. She was one of dozens of artists whose careers were ruined by HUAC’s far-reaching, paranoia-fueled investigations. This story is a powerful reminder that the fact that you or I haven’t heard a story doesn’t mean it’s been forgotten. It means we haven’t been listening to the people trying to tell it.
The latest entry in NPR Music's Turning the Tables series, "an ongoing project dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive ways." (They note, “The use of the term "Women+" is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.”)
Carolita Johnson is a cartoonist whose work frequently appears in the New Yorker, but I’ve admired her illustrated essays since first encountering them at the late, lamented Hairpin years ago. Recently, she has begun a series of essays that take account, literally and figuratively, of the life she’s built for herself and how it fits into the larger gendered economics of our society. This, the second in that series, is a personal history of her succession of improbable day jobs (improbable to me, Jacqui, a person who can barely even handle the fact that I actually became a writer). The first entry, a reckoning with the ways in which partnership exacts uneven costs for women and men, is really lovely, too.
I loved what Brandon says about being drawn to fiction because it allowed him to make sense of his family’s confusing truths and falsehoods in a way he felt non-fiction couldn’t. A similar impulse is what drove me to the opposite: I become a historian and a non-fiction writer. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—and, in turn, creates its own chroniclers.
Another gorgeous essay about past, place, and personal history in the American South. As she investigates a bitter conflict that culminated in mob violence in 1930s Appalachia, "I know the tragedy begins in something that I have inherited a love for: the peculiar character of the land itself."
And here’s another piece on the subject of what we remember and how we forget. This terrific package excerpts the work of the Herald's Carl Juste and photographer C.W. Griffin, who have produced a photographic essay and documentary video on the restoration of Lincoln Park Memorial Cemetery, a neglected burial park in Miami's historic Brownsville neighborhood. Their work is part of the Coral Gables Museum’s extraordinary new show Sacred Ground, which details the organization’s commitment to restoring and reviving the cemetery. Leonard Pitts, Jr., Andres Viglucci, and Ellis Rua have contributed additional commentary and reporting; don't miss Rua's portrait of the man who has dedicated his days to serving as the cemetery's "volunteer caregiver, its protector, its savior."
As Ed pithily put it on Twitter, “19 black radicals are still in prison 40, 50 years after they were arrested in the black liberation struggle. I've been talking to many of them.” He’s the senior reporter at Guardian US; this week, he’s published a package of a half-dozen of the stories that have resulted from two years of reporting. These portraits are sensitive, unflinching, and reflective. They raise provocative questions about institutional racism, mass incarceration, and the justice system—ones we cannot continue to defer. I recommend starting with this piece, but much, much more follows.
This piece wins dek of the week: “First you drop out of high school and start doing drugs. The rest sort of figures itself out after you unexpectedly get pregnant.” And now I vow to watch anything Augustine Frizzell ever makes.
Among other things, this is a terrific character study of Houston surgeon Bud Frazier. My favorite part might be this description of his accent: “Bud had also maintained an authentic West Texas drawl, sounding to some like LBJ on quaaludes.”
She was one of only two women to represent Alabama in the United States Senate. Or, as she once said, “I want it chiseled on my tombstone that this 5-foot-2 woman who weighs 110 pounds kept George Corley Wallace out of the Senate.”
Seated between Norman Mailer and Ben Hecht, James Baldwin witnessed the two-minute and six-second blowout between heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and beast-mode challenger Sonny Liston at Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1962. The piece is written almost entirely in prelude. Baldwin, a boxing novice, enlisted Gay Talese as his guide to the scene, and he crafted character studies of the two fighters rather than detailing the punches of the fight. Nobody wanted Liston to win, even the "Negroes," writes Baldwin, who placed a big bet on Patterson and lost. This week marked the centenary of Baldwin's birth.
Sum Of All Parts is a great Australian podcast about numbers in all their weird glory. But even a podcaster as hard-working as Joel Werner needs some time off, and this summer he’s doing a very cool thing by showcasing other podcasts each week. It’s been a great exercise in discovery — you can hear a lot of new stuff all within one convenient feed. Maybe you’ll find your favorite new show. And then go back and listen to all the SOAP archives as well.
Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight's politics podcast and is heading up the new "30 for 30" podcast documentary series from ESPN.
THE SLR POD:
Next up on The Sunday Long Read Podcast is author Jo Piazza. Here are a few of our recent favorites.
“What was I to do with essays and their order, their tidiness, their directness, when the only things I knew had to do with obscurity and the indirect. Take love, for another example, which to some people is expressed via touch or via words or some other means of affection. In my family, love was the slow accumulation of moments in which I was not subjected to great harm. What is love if you get it secondhand? Is it a fact or merely a detail?”
Covering the July 30 presidential election in Zimbabwe, photographer Luis Tato captured the historic moment in a dramatic image that resembled an Old Masters painting. The Spanish-born stringer, shooting for Agence France-Presse (AFP), used the light of a lantern to reflect the mix of emotions on the faces of observers gathered at a polling station outside the country’s capital, Harare. The occasion marked the first time since 1980 that ballots offered new presidential candidates other than Robert Mugabe, deposed in a military coup last year. Tato later hit the downtown streets to document violent protests amid election-rigging accusations as armed police and soldiers fired on stone-throwing crowds, killing at least three.
Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1987. He is currently a Distinguished Executive-in-Residence in Emerson College’s Department of Journalism.
In a new academic paper, Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord probe one of the most enduring questions ever: Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? In "Dissolving the Fermi Paradox," the three researchers offer a qualified answer of "no." From the paper's abstract: "we find a substantial... probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it."
Ryan works as a professor at Florida State University, where he teaches research methods and sports law. He writes a lot of academic articles and some mainstream pieces too.
TIM TORKILDSON'S SUNDAYLIMERICK
From The Washington Post:
"The Treasury Department is considering a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans through a change that would not need approval from Congress, officials said, a move that would follow a package of tax cuts last year that also benefited the super-rich."
From Tim: Consider the poor plutocrat,
whose upkeep on his black silk hat
and stable of mares
and sunk Facebook shares
means giving up his baccarat.
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown who fiddles with rhyme. All his verses can be found at Tim's Clown Alley.
Over the past couple decades, Memphis-based rock band Lucero has evolved from a garage-burning roots-rock crew into a brassy rock 'n' soul outfit. But the excellent, newly released Among the Ghosts suggests the band hasn't forgotten where it came from. Lead singer Ben Nichols' voice, as smooth as a freshly busted pile of jagged rock in the local quarry, remains the group's hearty signature, though each player shows his instrumental might with authority.
For the most part, the Stax-style horns from the outfit's last few studio albums are absent, replaced with a confident range of tempos and styles. With a hip-shaking bass line, "Everything Has Changed" feels like an R&B number more than it sounds like one, while the moody "Long Way Back Home" bursts with vivid western gothic flourishes. The ominous, deliberately-paced "Back to the Night" goes dark with a spoken word part from the stellar actor Michael Shannon, who has appeared in a number of films directed by Ben's brother, Jeff Nichols.
When a band is 20 years into its career, growth is necessary, but tricky. Among the Ghosts marches the band forward by carefully inching back towards its early hardscrabble sound armed with a few recently learned lessons.
Kelly Dearmore is the Music Critic for the Dallas Morning News. Yes, he's heard your son's demo tape, and he thinks it's fantastic.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Producer, Curator: Étienne Lajoie Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Long View Editor: Justine Gubar Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg
Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Chris Cillizza, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Michael Kruse, Tom Lamont, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Jacqui Shine, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham and Karen Wickre.
Header Image: Oivind Hovland
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.