Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Enduring Significance of a Primary Source

Nothing prioritizes one’s valued possessions quite like having to move. Faced with packing (and unpacking) dozens of boxes, one may decide that stuff carried around from year to year be jettisoned. Historians run the risk of keeping tons of old papers, be they old conference papers, notes from readings, or copies of primary sources. Since establishing I will move away from the Midwest, the quest to consolidate led thousands of pieces of paper into the recycle bin. But as I sorted papers to pack, discard, or shred this week, I came across a nineteen-page document for the “pack” pile.

Twenty years ago, before I made the move back east to study at the University of Chicago, my grandfather Maury visited California for his 83rd birthday.  We arranged for me to join him back to his home in Hilo, Hawaii to interview him about growing up the son of immigrant Jews in Black Hawk County, Iowa.

Maury would not simply sit still for an interview.  He was, by trade, a writer, starting out at Iowa newspapers before heading to Los Angeles to work in radio, write the story for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, pen some Perry Mason episodes, and write some other films and plays, including Marilyn Monroe’s dramatic radio debut.  (A moment less historic than her dance over a steam vent.  No surprise, as radio was hardly her best medium.)   His desire to control the narrative meant that before we flew to Hawaii, he sat down at his typewriter and bashed out a series of memories and family stories he titled “THE GREENHORNS.”

“THE GREENHORNS” (capitals original) focused on my grandfather’s experiences growing up as one of the few Jewish kids in town, but also included the story of how my great-great-grandfather Ben selected the family name, why my great-grandparents Abraham and Pearl fled Europe, and how my great-grandfather wound up in rural Iowa buying junk from area farmers.  “THE GREENHORNS” served to structure more than ten hours of discussions he and I taped over a week.

Little did I know in 1992 how much this little document would shape my life.  Over the next year, “THE GREENHORNS” and resulting interviews inspired my M.A. thesis on Chicago’s importance to Jewish life in the Midwest.  (A thesis that owed no small debt to William Cronon’s discussion of Chicago and its hinterlands in Nature’s Metropolis.)  But it was not until I moved to Carnegie Mellon University to study urban environmental history with Joel Tarr that it had its greatest influence.

Joel and I, it turned out, had family stories in common.  Though his family settled in New Jersey and mine was in Iowa, both his father and my great-grandfather worked buying and selling scrap metal.  Both were Jewish, as, anecdotally, were most of the men (usually men) who entered that trade in the early twentieth century.  Wondering why that was the case helped inspire my study of scrap recycling practices throughout American history, first as a dissertation, and then as the book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America.  While my interest in waste derives from several influences, I see a clear line from “THE GREENHORNS” to my current work.

Cash for Your Trash has the most obvious debt, and my grandfather influenced the timing of that book.  One reason why I wanted to interview Maury in 1992 was an observation that he was slowing down in his early eighties and I wanted to commemorate his stories while he could still tell them.  His memory was a little slow and halting at times, but was still a strong and able storyteller.  Two years later, he would fall and sustain brain damage that rendered followup interviews impossible.

Even then, he remained a strong-willed and remarkably self-sufficient man. A decade after the accident, however, his body began to give out.  My manuscript neared completion in late 2004, and I rushed to finish it so the slow process of turning galleys to a published book could begin. The book came out the following autumn, and my grandfather managed to hold on. Maury died at the age of 96, three days after my father placed a copy of Cash for Your Trash in his hospice room.  The book is dedicated to him, in no small part because of the stories he shared in “THE GREENHORNS.”  I look forward to unpacking this document when I arrive – not far from the Ellis Island immigrant inspection station where my great-grandfather entered the United States – in New York City.

The (Electronic) Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

Back in April, I mentioned that the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage was available.  At the time, I had four copies of the hardcopy version on my dining room table.  It is gratifying to, after months of work editing and revising entries, have a tangible, heavy object (more precisely, two tangible, heavy objects) as proof of your efforts.  The vast majority of readers may not care about that sweat equity, however, and may not wish to risk hernias to look up issues relating to sewage, climate change, recycling, nuclear power, or, well, the waste generated by publishing books and periodicals.

Thankfully, readers have another, lighter option.  If you go to SAGE’s website dedicated to the encyclopedia, you will see a box in the upper right-hand corner exclaiming “This title is available electronically via SAGE Reference Online.” This week, I had an opportunity to play around with the electronic edition, and it is an excellent way to search the wide variety of topics we included. The home page offers four search options:

Advanced Search – Use keywords if you have a specific query
Reader’s Guide – Find entries by browsing through thematic categories
Entries A-Z – Browse or ‘search as you type’ the entire list of entries
Subject Index – Browse A-Z or ‘search as you type’ the contents of the index

For a more than 1200-page, two-volume reference work, this electronic option is handy. It also gives you the option of printing or saving to PDF individual entries. Reading this version more closely approximates my experience of editing the work, as initial entries were submitted on Microsoft Word documents via a searchable database. This version has the advantages of polished entries, dozens of supplementary photographs, and easy-to-use links both within the entries and in the sidebar Subject Guide.

If your library or lending institution is interested in stocking this title, direct them to the publisher’s contact information to get the process started.

Closing a Loop

Summer is migratory season for academics.  Two, Alexandra Filindra and Steven H. Corey, just migrated to Chicago where she is teaching political science at UIC and he is the new chair of the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College.

Steve also studies urban environmental history, with an emphasis on waste management. He was, for example, research curator of the “Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in New York City” exhibition at the New York Public Library and is co-editor of the American Urban Reader: History and Theory which incorporates environmental analysis extensively in its survey of American cities. Alexandra and Steve moved from New Jersey and Rhode Island (respectively) with their possessions transported in dozens of boxes. Now that they have unpacked, they have kindly given us many of those boxes. (A much-appreciated gift, as over the years, we have donated our old moving boxes to friends in need.) What will we do with these boxes? Cart our possessions…right back to the Northeast.
Boxes between their jobs as storage.Boxes between their jobs as storage.Storage awaiting transportation back East.Storage awaiting transportation back East.

Those of us interested in minimizing waste often talk about trying to close loops of material flows in order to avoid tossing wasted material into landfills, waterways, or vulnerable communities. We consider public policy to encourage or require the design and use of objects to minimize waste, producers developing voluntary manufacturing standards to close loops, or (as in my first book) discuss how informal markets develop to reclaim wasted material from open loop disposal practices.

In this instance, the notion of a loop not only is about extending the working lives of the materials beyond one use but also has a spatial meaning. The boxes will complete an almost-perfect geographical loop between the New York and Chicago metro areas, allowing Steve and I to claim the repurposing of these boxes as a modest application of our work on waste.

Alternately, it is possible that the process of packing is making me loopy. That would certainly explain the existence of this post.

A Century of Woody Guthrie (& His Love of Hydroelectric Power)

Today is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth and to commemorate the happy occasion, I’m digging back into my archives.  Back in 2007, I gave a talk at the EMP Pop Conference about Woody Guthrie’s love of hydroelectric dam projects entitled “Pastures of Plenty: Contextualizing Woody Guthrie Through the Lens of the Environment.” Here’s the abstract:

The Mermaid Avenue project successfully brought Woody Guthrie’s songs into a late-twentieth century context, much as earlier revivals had introduced Guthrie’s music to the Sixties. The albums that Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded of Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics were described as “equal parts tribute and collaboration” (to quote the Amazon UK description of the first album). While the benefits of bringing Guthrie’s music to a new audience through new interpretations of his work are great, they also bring the danger of obscuring or divorcing the writer from his time and place. The Mermaid Avenue collaboration involved a dead man from a different time, and this paper seeks to ground Guthrie’s ballads about the Dust Bowl in the context of the 1930s. I will focus on how Guthrie’s lyrics reveal a perspective towards land, water, and capital that reflects widespread sentiments about natural resources and economic development during the Depression. Guthrie’s concerns over the productivity of the land and its economic implications for agricultural workers, in ways which could be interpreted as either socialist or capitalist within a social welfare state, yet are clearly grounded in an ethic of resource use. In many ways these sentiments run counter to modern environmentalist attitudes that are evident in the songs of more recent artists ranging from Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and Randy Newman to Earth Crisis, Silkworm, and Billy Bragg. While varying stylistically, the more recent works all question the consequences of technological progress and exploitation of resources in ways Guthrie did not; the comparison reflects how American environmental concerns changed before and after World War II.

Guthrie songs I discussed in the paper included “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Pastures of Plenty.” I argued that loving hydroelectric dam projects made a lot of sense for both the economic needs Guthrie perceived and the assumption that nature was a resource to be conserved — and, crucially, to be used — that he and the federal government shared during the Depression and World War II. Historical context, I concluded, is important for understanding Guthrie and his views:

We could guess that a Woody Guthrie who had read Silent Spring in 1962 or had seen the cancer-stricken children in the working-class community of Love Canal, New York in 1978 would have found fault in what industrialized America had done to nature and developed protest songs against environmental degradation. The prospect of Woody Guthrie singing and laying down on the highway at the 1982 Warren County, North Carolina protests against placing a toxic waste dump in a poor African-American community certainly would be consistent with his pleas for social justice during the Depression. Maybe he would have second thoughts about dams, once their destructive effects became clear. These are all plausible guesses, but they are only guesses because Guthrie neither lives nor breathes. What we know is, that by the man’s own words and experiences, Guthrie was an ardent conservationist concerned with tapping the natural resources of the United States to benefit mankind. This does not make him somehow morally deficient when compared to the songwriters who follow him; conservation in 1941 was consistent with Guthrie’s passion for social justice, economic opportunity, and hope.

The followup audience discussion covered topics ranging from the differences between Woody Guthrie and Neil Young and how Guthrie treated Native Americans in his music.  As he did with so many subjects, Woody Guthrie left a lot to think about in terms of how humans relate to their environments, and I was glad to ponder some of his work for this paper.

Karl Hendricks and the Emotional Power of Hoarding

Karl Hendricks is a singer and guitarist from Pittsburgh.  He is most known for a string of records he released in the 1990s, combining heavy Les Paul riffing with some of the smartest, funniest, and saddest lyrics in rock. (Both tendencies are evident on the early single “Baseball Cards” and 1996’s “A Boy Who Plays with Dolls.”) The Karl Hendricks Trio (featuring Karl with a shifting combination of bassists and drummers, occasionally with a second guitarist to transform the Trio into the Karl Hendricks Rock Band) played shows with Silkworm and released albums on Superchunk’s label Merge.  While those bands informed Karl’s music, judging his records by their covers — illustrated by the likes of Chris Ware and Wayno — gives more of a clue to Karl’s precise, bleak, and witty sensibility.

That sensibility fit the time and place where the Karl Hendricks Trio began.  I came to Pittsburgh for graduate school two days before baseball owners locked players out in the late summer of 1994, prematurely ending the second of many terrible seasons by the Pirates after Barry Bonds left as a free agent.  Western Pennsylvania was reeling from a decade of deindustrialization that closed factories, homes, and churches.  One church on Liberty Avenue became a microbrewery. Discussions to turn another into an American Gladiators arena fell apart.  Many buildings lay vacant. I took a project course in my first semester on what to do with the Lawrenceville neighborhood, which had seen all of its riverside steel mills close. Lawrenceville had lost its young and middle-aged people to cities that could offer jobs. Retirees shuffled through the streets.  Soot covered buildings everywhere, remnants of over a century of coal use so prevalent that Anthony Trollope declared the city in 1860 “without exception the blackest place which I ever saw.”

The onetime steel-making capital of the world had become a great place for a graduate student to live.  Rooms went for around $200 per month.  One year, I paid that much to share a house on the Point Breeze block that was recreated in miniature for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Fred Rogers had moved to the Oakland neighborhood by that time, and it was not unusual to see the gracious, famous man on the street near the WQED studios.

You could eat cheaply in Pittsburgh, especially if you liked Indian food.  Sree’s Foods sold $3 styrofoam boxes filled with chick peas, rice, and potatoes out of the back of a van parked on campus.  Sree’s was something of an employment agency for the local music community. Sometimes the van was staffed by Karl’s wife Megan, or his onetime bassist Caulen, or his future drummer Jake.  The Karl Hendricks Trio would play in a cramped tavern, and you might turn around and see Mr. Sree enjoying the show from the comfort of the bar. Each new Karl Hendricks Trio record was met with rapt enthusiasm at the campus radio station, making his music an important part of the community of young people living in an old city.

Karl’s shows and records became less frequent after 1998 as he raised his family, earned his M.F.A., taught, and worked at Paul’s CDs (the best store for new records in town), but the two records he released over the next decade were perhaps his finest.  The youthful angst of his earlier work evolved into an evaluation of growing up and growing older, or as he put it on “California in October” (the epic Crazy Horse-influenced closer of 2007’s The World Says), “it’s not that I mind growing older/I just wish you’d stop showing me the decline.”

This month, Karl releases his first new album in five years.  The Adult Section continues his lyrical and musical approaches with nine songs about uncomfortable situations, alcohol consumption, and the emotional minefields of memories as time passes. It joins 2003’s The Jerks Win Again and The World Says as examples of how to produce thoughtful, muscular rock.  The Adult Section is not a rehash of what Karl Hendricks was doing at 25, but it is no softer or quieter than Some Girls Like Cigarettes or A Gesture of Kindness. Instead, The Adult Section is simply music that reflects a man taking stock of his life and his surroundings at middle age.

The album’s penultimate song “Dreams, Ha” is a meditation on memory and hoarding, as a man in his early forties associates times and relationships in his life with the physical detritus he has saved.  Karl tosses a dozen references into the song (audible in a gorgeous solo performance at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum), allowing him to describe how images in the mind fuel the powerful urge to hoard:

Dreams, dreams, ha, ha, ha
Just a lock of your hair and a broken guitar
And a baby tooth and a Gretzky card
And a picture of you next to a Yoda doll

Why do I hold on to all this trash?
Hanging tight to the concrete
’Cause I lost all the abstract

The litany of objects the narrator of “Dreams, Ha” rattles off include mass-produced baubles of plastic and cardboard, commodities (even broken ones) that the narrator’s memory intertwines with intimately individual leavings of teeth and hair to produce deeply personal meanings.  If the future turns out not to be just one long present, with relationships slipping away due to tragedy or circumstance, how tempting is it to clutch totems of good times past?  Two decades after lamenting a time when all your best ideas have been bought and sold, Karl presents a narrator more worried about hanging on than selling out.

“Dreams, Ha” has both professional and personal significance to me because it raises ideas about consumption and waste.  Karl Hendricks neatly articulates how an individual gives meaning to (or, as Walter Benjamin put it, fetishizes) objects designed, mass-produced, distributed, and sold by people with no personal connection to the consumer.  That meaning goes well beyond the money paid for those objects, as the narrator makes the effort to preserve and protect these things over time even if they have no ostensible function or value to anyone else.

The Adult Section arrives as I decide whether to pack or trash the clothes, books, records, baseball cards, furniture, photographs, letters, and other possessions I have collected through several moves over the years.  This move is more of a challenge as I go from a house to a smaller, furnished apartment. My desire to keep my stuff is tempered by reluctance to pay to store it somewhere in the most expensive city in the United States.

Urgency to curb my packrat tendencies is greater than ever.  (It is possible that editing several encyclopedia entries on hoarding and acquisition since my last move help my resolve almost as much as the finite space that waits for me in Brooklyn.)  Over and over this summer, I have sorted through my closets and boxes asking myself, why do I hold on to all this trash? Some of the things I have carted around the continent over the past quarter century are finally exiting my life via garage sales, Craigslist, Freecycle, the recycling bin, and the dumpster.

I am not getting rid of everything.  Much will make the drive to New York, a drive that will involve a stopover for a few days in Pittsburgh. I will double back on my past, to a town that has changed since 1994.  The Pirates are threatening to win more games than they lose. Lawrenceville’s dilapidated homes and storefronts have seen a renaissance (a word often used by local boosters) with artists’ enclaves popping up on Butler Street. Paul’s CDs closed a few months ago, and Karl now runs Sound Cat Records in its place. Lou Gehrig’s disease killed Mr. Sree last summer. Cancer took Mr. Rogers weeks before I left town nine years ago.  Most of the soot on the buildings has been scrubbed away.

The Adult Section is available on vinyl LP that comes with a compact disc “for the sake of your convenience.”  Shelf space awaits both the LP and CD in my new apartment.

MetalTheft.Net Interview

Kevin Whiteacre, Director of the Community Research Center and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at the University of Indianapolis, runs a website called MetalTheft.Net that “aims to identify and provide high quality, scholarly, professional, and publicly available literature on metal theft” through articles and interviews. Recently, he interviewed me on the history of metal theft, and our conversation is now available online.