Fake News: Through the Ages

We’ve heard so much about “fake news” lately, we thought it might be interesting to focus on the topic in a series of blog posts. Although it seems to be a new concept, “fake news” has been around – in one form or another – for centuries. Let’s not freak out: humans seem to have always had the impulse to use language to persuade, influence, parody, and even deceive. Let’s take a look!

Probably the most well-known form of “fake news” takes the form of propaganda. What does that term mean, exactly? Skip Wikipedia and check out the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – perhaps the best place to find all of its definitions, usages, and etymology. We have plenty of books about propaganda in the library, including some rare examples in our Special Collections Department. Explore the role propaganda plays in relation to Fascism, Communism, and politics more generally.

More subtly, we also have the urge to defend our beliefs – whether our beliefs are based on fact or not. If this interests you, try exploring apologetics and polemics. Both have played a significant role in the history of Christianity and, more generally, all faith-based ideologies.

Sometimes “facts” are manufactured as a means of critique – something we commonly call “satire.” For a great example of satirical literature, you might want to take a look a Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – we have many editions. Or, if you’re fans of comic opera, maybe check a video of any of the Savoy Operas, by Gilbert & SullivanThe Mikado is a personal favorite! But, be careful not to mistake satire for truth – sometimes a very difficult thing to avoid!

So, now that you’ve researched some historical sources related to the topic, stay tuned for our next blog post about “fake news” – with some tangible advice on how to check sources and verify facts! Not only as a means to avoid spreading misinformation, but in extreme cases of spreading falsehoods, you may be sued for libel or slander.

Hamlet, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and the Eastern Bloc

Caroline West is an international studies major from Chattanooga, TN. She considers the Special Collections to be the perfect place to engage her various passions, which include history, politics, art, Shakespeare, and language. 

Zora Neale Hurston, American novelist, once wrote that “nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.” A slight revision of this quote to read “nothing that Shakespeare ever wrote is the same thing to more than one person” aptly summarizes one of the most important lessons I have learned so far in my research in Special Collections. Of course, I didn’t embark on this project believing that there were only a few analyses of the works of Shakespeare. One visit to the library’s section of books on Shakespeare is sufficient evidence of the plethora of ways people have interpreted the great bard’s works throughout history. That is why I believe the revised Hurston quote to be so applicable. Every person that examines Shakespeare, with few exceptions, comes to his works with fresh eyes, and thus, the possibility of a completely unique interpretation.

Coming to such a conclusion is at once encouraging and daunting. It supports the idea that I might have something of value to add to the existing vast breadth of Shakespearean research. But I am also aware that Shakespeare’s works have been studied for centuries; it is difficult, if not impossible, to find an angle that has not already been explored. All that being said, I am hopeful that, at the end of the academic year, my research will have yielded knowledge that, if not completely new and unique, is at least interesting to the intellectual community at Hopkins and beyond.

The topic I intend to explore is a comparison of productions of Hamlet in West and East Germany in the mid-to-late 20th century. Those locations lend themselves particularly well to Hamlet for one pertinent reason: East Germany, at the height of its stability, was arguably the world’s most perfected surveillance state. The primary theme, among others, in Hamlet is surveillance. Thus, I believe there is fertile ground for comparisons between East Germany and Elsinore, which would have introduced conflict between the East German government and theater directors. Indeed, I was inspired to choose this particular topic after reading an article in the New York Times about a production of Hamlet in East Germany that was shut down after the government suspected a political statement was being made through emphasizing the line “Denmark’s a prison.” I’m particularly interested to discover how cultural differences between West and East Germany, many of which are still evident today, were reflected in Hamlet productions.

A selection from the 1676 edition of The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Prompt book of John Ward (1704-1773)

I consider my research worth conducting because it engages many of my passions: the intersection of art, culture, and politics, German history, Shakespeare, language…the list goes on. Furthermore, I am eager to investigate each of these subjects for myself, to rely not simply on what I read in a textbook, but to form conclusions based on my own understanding of documents from past eras. But I understand that others might need more convincing. What is the value of studying old documents and books? The frequent advances we’ve made in technology in the past few decades have practically hardwired us to be forward thinking. We’re captivated by the possibilities of the future; the realities of the past, both beautiful and broken, are less comfortable to contemplate. We reach for the e-reader, not the yellowed manuscript from bygone centuries.

It is in Special Collections, I believe, that we see a more perfect marriage of the past with the present. Through Special Collections, a document or a book from 1616 is preserved with the technology of 2016. It is the fusion of the two that broadens our understanding of our world and our history, recognizing that one is not necessarily superior to the other. It’s not easy to find that balance between appreciating the past and believing wholeheartedly in the potential of technology and progress to create a better future.

Germany is particularly fertile ground for examining how exactly we achieve that balance, because Germany’s history is a blend of the most brilliant of lights with the darkest of evils. Its government perpetrated the worst genocide in human history, and it is also the homeland of masterful artists, scientists, musicians, and intellectuals. So how does one create an image of Germany that recognizes these blatant contrasts without giving greater value to either end of the spectrum? There’s a word in German that I think serve this purpose: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. To my knowledge, this word has no exact English equivalent; its approximation is “grappling with the past.” This is the starting point for understanding why Germans, as a German friend of mine once put it, “are proud of not being proud.”

This is also how one unravels the multitude of threads in Germany’s history, a past that includes darkness sometimes so evil and brutal that it seems nearly impossible to overcome. But there is light in this country’s appreciation for Shakespeare, in the brilliance of playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, in the art and music its citizens have produced, in the fierce compassion of Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis, in the way that it has doggedly knit itself back together, undeterred by knots and tangles along the way. Inherent in my research is this idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and in my opinion, that’s reason enough to spend time in Special Collections. I seek to fashion a vision of the past that is neither too rosy nor too bleak, that appreciates how far we have come and how far we still have to go. That seems particularly critical, perhaps now more than ever before. I don’t expect through my findings to create such a foundation for all future research, but perhaps I can at least lay a few stones.

Introducing Our Freshman Fellows: Faith Terry

For the past 5 months, I’ve been discovering what it means to be a student here at Hopkins. From the importance of academics and the shared sense of competition, to locating the steam tunnel entrances and avoiding the lines at the FFC, freshmen like me are just beginning to get the hang of being a Blue Jay. While I’ve been adjusting to college life myself, I’ve also had the unique opportunity to study glimpses of student life here before my time, through the lens of one of the most important aspects of campus living: student housing.

To start my research, I decided to look at the construction of housing chronologically. Of course, this presents an immediate problem: Hopkins began admitting students in 1876, but didn’t open its first dormitory until 1923. For half a century, students had to fend for themselves out in Baltimore and find their own housing.

The original campus was located in Downtown Baltimore, centered around Howard and Monument Streets. The original classroom buildings have all since been torn down as that part of the city has been re-developed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some of the houses used by students at the time are still standing. I made a rough map of student addresses (which for many years were made public in the university directory) and found that, in the earliest years of the school, most students seemed to favor rowhouses.

Perhaps the most important donation the school received was the land donated by William Wyman and William Keyser, which would come to form Homewood Campus. Before the move, President Gilman had repeatedly discussed his concerns about the size of the campus, especially as the student body continued to grow every year and strain the capacity of the small Howard Street classrooms. Especially without any shared dormitories, the campus lacked any student social spaces, as well as sports practice areas. This need for space is a big part of what fueled the move to a new campus.

The war played an interesting role in terms of student housing. Some of the first students who lived on-campus were actually in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) and lived in barracks in the Mechanical Engineering Building (Latrobe Hall). The SATC programs were short-lived, however, as they only began the fall that the war ended. These barracks were also used to house students during the flu epidemic of 1918, during which Johns Hopkins was actually the first public institution to close down following the outbreak in Baltimore. I guess a quick response would be expected, given our reputation for incredible medical knowledge!

The continued legacy of the war in student housing would likely be familiar to anyone living in one of the AMRs. These buildings, the Alumni Memorial Residences, have houses named after Hopkins Alumni who served during WWI. The plans for these buildings were discussed in the 1919 President’s report, where President Goodnow talked about the important role that dorms would play at the school. Of course, he wasn’t referring to the importance of a student community or the convenience of having students on campus. Instead, he was talking about the new revenue stream that would be supporting the university!

Apartments only grew in popularity for off-campus housing after WWII. This popularity, as well as the new need to house student veterans (some with families of their own) is what led the university to its first housing acquisition, the Bradford Apartments. According to a report in a ‘47 News-Letter, the university would wait for current residents to move out on their own before moving in new students, seeming to want to limit their impact on the city by not forcing anyone to leave. I’d be interested to see how this approach changed or stayed the same when it came to other apartment acquisitions. Johns Hopkins has always played an important role in Baltimore, so it’s particularly interesting to see how the university interacts with the city as it continues to grow and expand.

Another theme that only seems to be growing in importance is that of diversity and inclusion at Hopkins. I’d love to see how student housing, as one of the pillars of student life, has connected historically with diversity here at the university. I’m still looking into issues of integration of housing, and am excited to look closer at the introduction of undergraduate women and the beginning of co-ed dorms. This theme seems especially relevant to housing in the present day, as the university has just recently started their gender inclusive housing initiative.

Over this semester, I’ve learned a lot about the history of the school and the changing face of the student body. I’ve also seen how student housing in particular began to change from a more individualized experience to become central to student life at the university. However, at the same time that my research has emphasized to me how much has changed over the years, I’ve also been struck by how much stays the same. A great place to find examples of this are the “Letters to the Editor” section of the News-Letter. Students came here to complain about housing, dining, the effectiveness of the Career Center, and even to plead for an exam exemption policy. As the setting of the university continues to be built up, renovated, and refurbished, it seems that the students have more in common with their predecessors than they may know. As I move forward with my research, I hope to find out more about this balance between persistence and change, both through the physical university and through the students themselves, elements that are both inherently intertwined with the story of student housing.

Meet Our Freshman Fellows: Kiana Boroumand on Dress Reform

Before I begin, let me first introduce myself: I’m Kiana Boroumand, a current freshman intending to major in sociology and writing seminars and minor in the study of women, gender, and sexuality. I’m a Baltimore native, a feminist to the core, and, as of the past few months, a Freshman Fellow – which means that I’m lucky enough to do independent research in Special Collections and Archives.
Since Hopkins has an extensive collection of books from the nineteenth century, I immediately knew I wanted my research to be centered around the feminist movement. It was the nineteenth century, after all, that gave rise to the first wave of feminism—so, as far as research goes, there was no better place to start.

Some paper dolls from the nineteenth century!

For the past few months, I’ve been studying everything from paper dolls (some of which are pictured above) to broadsides, etiquette books to medical texts, trying to learn as much as I could about the genesis of the feminist movement and what it sought to achieve. There is so much depth and breadth of material to study, and it’s been overwhelming at times to narrow down a topic, but, as first semester begins to come to a close, I can report that I’ve finally, officially settled on my area of research: dress reform.

To give you some background, the dress reform movement began in the nineteenth century to combat the harmful, restrictive clothing women had to wear—including a range of undergarments from chemises and petticoats to hoops, bustles, and corsets. One of the books I’ve been studying, The World’s Congress of Representative Women (1894), includes transcripts of various speeches given by feminist advocates at the congress from which the book derives its title. Many of these speeches deal exclusively with the topic of dress reform, and I’ve included some particularly poignant quotes from them below.

From “The Ethics of Dress” by Alice Timmons Toomy

“The baby girl resists restrictions, but centuries of inherited submission to conventionalities and limitations of sphere, bring the tiny girl readily into the bondage of ‘what people will think’; so that before the little girl of the privileged class is five years old she has accepted proprieties and restrictions as sacred as law in which, alas! Nature and comfort play very little part” (340).

From “Woman’s Dress From the Standpoint of Sociology” by Professor Ellen Hayes of Wellesley College

“How limited must be the employment, how restricted the pleasures, of one who wears this modern costume!” (357).
“She expects to take the same course of study that a man does; to hold her own in a profession, to assume a business role. These things she attempts while handicapped by a dress imposed upon her during the dark ages. Professor Lester F. Ward, author of Dynamic Sociology, sums up the whole matter when he declares that ‘the dress of women is the disgrace of civilization’” (358).

As the passages above illustrate, the restrictive clothes women had to wear weren’t just harmful to their health, they were also intentionally designed to propagate the cult of domesticity and keep women at home.

Ultimately, I’m working on tracking the progression of dress and style throughout the different waves of feminism. During the second wave, for instance, there was a surge of female fashion designers within the industry, from the iconic Coco Chanel – who revolutionized women’s fashion by designing pantsuits – to punk designers like Betsey Johnson. Now, well into feminism’s third wave, it’s easy to point to the progress we’ve made in terms of fashion, but a closer look reveals that there’s still a long way to go. Style trends such as waist-training and the resurgence of the corset as a fashion look (i.e. wearing a corset over a t-shirt) seem to be regressive of the feminist cause, and, as sociologist Judith Butler writes in her essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” clothing continues to play an important – and perhaps too important – part in “doing gender.”

As I continue my research, I hope to delve deeper into the intersections of fashion, gender, and politics. After all, the personal is political—and what’s more personal (and political!) than our own bodies?

Isn’t feminism fabulous?


China Data and GIS Workshop

Are you interested in learning about spatial data and spatial analysis? If so, you don't want to miss this upcoming workshop on China and U.S. data and GIS. Dr. Shuming Bao, director of China Data Center at the University of Michigan, will be here at MSE Library to teach about spatial study of economy and health with China and US data. His talks will cover available data sources, methodologies and functions for identifying the changing structures of socioeconomic and health industries in the U.S. and China in terms of time and space, as well as some potential research agenda.  Plus, you will get FREE lunch and refreshments, courtesy of MSE Library and Hopkins Population Center.

China Data and GIS Workshop - Thursday, March 2, 2017

12:00pm-3:00pm in Brody Learning Commons (BLC) Room 5015-5017
MSE Library, Johns Hopkins University, Homewood Campus



12:00-12:30 p.m.: Introduction to Data and GIS Services at MSE Library by Jim Gillispie, Head of Data and GIS Services, Johns Hopkins University

12:35-1:35 p.m.: Introduction to China Data: Sources, Products and Services by Dr. Shuming Bao, Director of China Data Center, University of Michigan

10-minute Break

1:45-2:45 p.m.: Spatial Study of Economy and Health with China and US Data by Dr. Shuming Bao

The event is FREE and open to the public. Registration is required at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/china-data-and-gis-workshop-tickets-31722607172


Introducing Our Freshman Fellows: Lucy Massey

Title page of Encomium Somni (Leipzig, 1519) by Christopher Hegendoff, The George Peabody Library, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University

My name is Lucy Massey, and the focus of my Freshman Fellows project is to improve my Latin skills by translating a selection of rare texts from the George Peabody Library of The Sheridan Libraries. The piece I am currently working with is titled Encomium Somni, or In Praise of Sleep, by Christopher Hegendorff.

Printed and published in Leipzig in 1519, Hegendorff’s work, all of seven pages, uses Sleep as an anthropomorphic narrator. We first learn the genealogy of Sleep, who tells us: “Natus sum itaque nocte patre & lethe matre parentibus vel multo nobilissimis. Neque a fletu, ut quidam ait, vitae meae limen ingressus sum, sed statim cum risu.” And in translation: “Thus was I born to the most noble of parents by far, night as a father, and forgetfulness my mother. Nor did I cross the threshold of my life with wailing, as some say, but in an instant and with a laugh.” This playful personification of sleep is all the more striking given the works for which Hegendorff is better known – works of a religious and scholastic nature.

Through modern reference works in the Eisenhower Library, I have learned more about the author’s biography and how it may have shaped his work. Born in Leipzig in 1500, Hegendorff was at work on a Master of Arts degree at Leipzig University, and all of about nineteen at the time he wrote the Encomium Somni. He had also just written a very different sort of encomium, one praising Martin Luther. Hegendorff eventually taught a variety of subjects, including theology, civil law, and classical literature. His religious thoughts, writings, and personal affiliations are difficult to pin down, indicative of the academic culture of early humanism and the religious climate during the formative years of the Reformation. He was invited, for example, by the bishop of Poznan in Poland to teach at the university there, but left after a conflict with the archdeacon, who accused him of Lutheranism. Hegendorff briefly worked as a lawyer in a town on the modern-day German-Polish border, then served as a legal consultant to the city of Lüneberg in northern Germany.

Like his most learned correspondent, even ancient Greek authors such as Homer are kept alive in Hegendorff’s work. The Encomium is peppered with allusions to the Iliad and other Greek works, with quotations printed in the original Greek, as we can see here on the first page.

In translating Hegendorff’s work, it has become clear to me the ways in which Latin was adapted to suit the needs of different times, even as ancient core texts were preserved. Hegendorff certainly does not read like Virgil or Caesar, but they share a common understanding of the spirit, practice, and dynamic use of the language. As someone seemingly so far removed from these writers, it has been endlessly exciting for me to feel connected to them through Latin.

Another avenue of my research has been reading the book Latin: Story of a World Language  by Jürgen Leonhardt, a German professor of Classical Philology. Leonhardt draws our attention to what my research project has begun to show me first-hand: Latin had a long and illustrious afterlife. Unlike Babylonian or Etruscan, Latin became a truly global language, valued and taught for centuries after the Roman Empire fell. During the so-called ‘Dark Ages,’ Latin flourished as the language of academics, physicians, and scientists – as Leonhardt points out, the Latin writing from ancient Rome only comprises “at most 0.01 percent” of the total extant works written in Latin. In fact, Renaissance neo-Latin works, such as Hegendorff’s Encomium Somni, are not merely sleepy by-products of a once vibrant antiquity, but instead form an understudied wellspring of Latin expression. These learned works, as Leonhardt further argues, present a unique synthesis of ancient inspiration and contemporary innovation. Latin allowed scholars to communicate with each other and engage with the work of their predecessors across lengthy geographic and temporal borders. As vernacular languages developed for everyday use, Latin was never just brushed aside – those who read and wrote it recognized its power of a world language at a time when international communication was becoming increasingly fragmented by vernacular literatures and national interests.

Some of the challenges facing the would-be translator of these neo-Latin works in their original printed format include unpacking the prominent use of abbreviations by the type-setters (as one can see again at use on the first page); topical and learned allusions that are not always obvious; the inability to check earlier translations (as one could do for more canonical writers, for example); and, finally, a Latin syntax which seeks to model itself on the ancients, but has its own latter-day particularities. As I continue delving into rare texts at the Sheridan Libraries, I look forward to new discoveries and insights while I work to better my Latin skills.

Latin was at the crux of each of Hegendorff’s careers, as was the case for his peers, pupils, and predecessors. Throughout the Encomium Somni he makes learned allusions to contemporary authors who also wrote in Latin, such as Ulrich von Hutten and Desiderius Erasmus. Hegendorff actually wrote Erasmus a letter, unfortunately no longer extant, though Erasmus’ reply has come down to us. A good next step in my research will be to track down Erasmus’ response for a better understanding of the context of their relationship.

Celebrate Fair Use Week…with Images!

Fair Use Week takes place this week from Monday, February 20 through Friday, February 24, 2017, and is just what it sounds like—a celebration of Fair Use and a chance to raise awareness about Fair Use.

What exactly is Fair Use? Check out this infographic for a quick overview, and click here to read the full text of the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17 of the United States Code). Section 107 discusses Fair Use:

Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.


Want to know more? The library has a guide just for copyright, blog posts on copyright in the classroom, and plenty of books and articles on the subject of Fair Use in the United States. For more best practices, check out the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries. For teaching tools, check out the Center for Media & Social Impact’s Fair Use Teaching Tools.

And what about images--how does Fair Use apply to images? Among all of the great resources out there, the Visual Resources Association's Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study and the College Art Association's Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts stand out as leaders in the world of visual resources.

The VRA Statement “aims to provide educators, scholars, and students – as well as members of the Visual Resources Association, librarians, and others – with the tools to rely on fair use with greater certainty when they employ these practices and principles,” and addresses six categories of image use:

  • Preservation: Storing Images for Repeated Use in a Teaching Context; Transferring Images to New Formats
    • Use of Images for Teaching Purposes
    • Use of Images on Course Websites and in Other Online Study Materials
    • Adaptations of Images for Teaching and Classroom Work by Students
    • Sharing Images Among Educational and Cultural Institutions to Facilitate Teaching and Study
    • Reproduction of Images in Theses and Dissertations

The CAA Code (College Art Association) “describes common situations in which there is a consensus within the visual arts community about practices to which [Fair Use] doctrine should apply and provides a practical and reliable way of applying it,” and addresses five categories of image use:

  • Analytic Writing
  • Teaching about Art
  • Making Art
  • Museum Uses
  • Online Access to Archival and Special Collections

Still looking for more resources on copyright, Fair Use, and image use? Check out the list of resources on the Visual Resources Association’s page of Resources Providing Guidance on Academic Use of Images and the Fair Use Week Resources page.

Check out @fairuseweek, #fairuseweek2017, and #fairuseweek on Twitter during Fair Use Week to learn more! There will likely be links to lots of resources and blog posts throughout the week on Twitter during Fair Use Week to learn more!

Get Paid For Research This Summer with DURA

Want to do original research over the summer and get paid for it?  Apply for one of the  Sheridan Libraries’ Dean’s Undergraduate Research Awards (DURA).  The awards are designed to stimulate and support undergraduate research in the humanities and social sciences that draw on primary source materials (rare books, manuscripts, and university archives) from the Sheridan Libraries.

Cuneiform Tablet 3b

These collections span 5,000 years of rare and unique objects from ancient cuneiform tablets and Egyptian papyri fragments; to illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts; to early printed books; to print materials of the Industrial Revolution; to nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first century literary and historical archives and book arts of the modern era. The University Archives, which preserve the papers of many of the influential scholars associated with JHU, also offer interesting material for new research.

"In festo S. Andree Ap. Introitus." An early 18th-century manuscript book in Latin. It features and illuminated inscription on leaf 107r dated 1715. This inscription also indicates that the manuscript was compiled in Spain. It also features colored illustrations which are all music. Call No: Gar 7. Location: John Work Garrett Library

The awards support research conducted over the summer months, and are meant to be used as cost-of-living stipends for awardees for the duration of their research. Awards range from $1,250 for a four-week research period, up to a maximum of $3,750 for a 12-week period; levels may vary.  Any additional research expenses must be drawn from the total amount of the student award, though some costs such as digitization may be possible without charge. Students typically live in Baltimore for the summer months, and use the Libraries’ collections for intensive research; a minimum of 25 hours per week of work with the designated research materials is required.

Applicants must identify a faculty mentor and are strongly encouraged to work also with a curator in the library, who can help applicants identify materials for research, formulate project proposals, and conduct research. Research outcomes might take the form of a traditional research essay, a digital exhibition, a video, or something else entirely.

An account of a most surprising savage girl, who was caught wild in the woods of Champagne, a province in France.

The fellowships are restricted to freshman, sophomore, and junior applicants; seniors graduating in 2017 are not eligible. Applications are due February 24. Please find more information and a link to the application form at http://krieger.jhu.edu/dura/

Please contact Gabrielle Dean, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts, at gnodean@jhu.edu if you have questions about the fellowship or how to apply, or need help identifying materials that would offer suitable material for a research project.

To Be a Black Writer: Chester B. Himes

This guest post by Lawrence Jackson, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of History and English, from his forthcoming biography of Chester Himes, previews the talk he will give on “Chester Himes and Life Writing,” on Wednesday, February 22 at 5:15 pm in the Macksey Room in the Brody Learning Commons.

Please visit our display of books from Professor Jackson's collection in the window of the Winston Tabb Research Center, from February 16 through 28, in celebration of Black History Month.

In the spring of 1934 a young prisoner in Ohio’s maximum security penitentiary sat in a raw dormitory near an open latrine with a typewriter purchased from his gambling winnings. For three years, he had plunked away at short stories, one after another, dozens of them, mailing them out to newspapers in Chicago and Atlanta. Slowly he had mastered his craft while reading everything that the prison trustee had in the cart, from glossy magazines and detective stories, to Omar Khayyám and the latest by John O’Hara. Five years into his sentence, the twenty-four-year-old had known some minor literary successes, but in that year he would have some major ones. Although it wasn’t unheard of for an Ohio convict to achieve literary fame—O. Henry had walked the same yard; there was a difference. Chester Himes was black.

If race has reasserted its powerful relevance in the twenty-first century, in the early 1930s it had fully evolved into what the sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois forecast in 1903 as “the problem of the Twentieth Century . . . the problem of the color line.” Up to 1934 there had been one black professional writer of regular national reach, the short-lived poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was best known for poetry in black “dialect,” what he himself was prone to dismiss as a “jingle in a broken tongue.” Others had tried and abandoned the job, moving on to steadier work. For most people whose parents or grandparents had reached adulthood as chattel slaves, it was thought improvident and foolhardy, if not genuinely odd, to pursue a career exclusively as a professional writer of fiction.

This was certainly true for Chester Himes. At the beginning, he ignored, denied, erased, or felt ashamed of much of what is understood today as racial ancestry or racial identity. He knew mainly that blackness had helped him pull a twenty-year-sentence for an armed robbery, a punishment he received at nineteen after he threw himself on the mercy of the court and confessed. A broken back was the only reason he had the leisure to write in the segregated prison and, unlike the other black convicts, wasn’t shoveling coal all day, everyday.

But to look at Chester Himes in 1934 was not, however, to be overwhelmed by something that mattered little to him. Light-skinned and slightly built, he exuded boyish, almost feminine charm. He had chipped teeth and several prominent scars, the main one on his chin, but they were the result of an accident, not street fights. For all of his life he would strive to appear tougher than what he felt inside, and writing helped him steel himself emotionally. He often compared the literary life to prizefighting and he accepted the discipline of training, punishment, and rejection, saying that “a fighter fights, and a writer writes.”

What he would accomplish in gray dungarees on the gray bunk surrounded by the clamor of unruly men suffering through the winter of their confinement would land him in a national magazine in 1934, repeatedly, alongside the best American writers, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes, another young black man from Ohio attempting to make a career in writing stick. Within ten years, after an early parole, Chester Himes fulfilled all of his youthful promise, and published a fiery first novel with America’s largest press, Doubleday. Not even two years after that, and with arguably America’s best literary publisher, Knopf, he completed the book that would define his career, Lonely Crusade. But although he was acclaimed—“if he is not the greatest writer of fiction among contemporary American Negroes, there is none greater”—by the American impresario of modern art Carl Van Vechten, Himes fled the United States as soon as he could in 1953, returning in contrite humiliation for ten months in 1955, then happily abandoning America forever. In France, Chester Himes became a writer of international renown and shaped the attitudes of the next generation. He did it by living in an unbending style and pioneering black stories in a new genre: detective fiction.

Himes was driven to expose racial injustice, especially its subliminal and libidinal dimensions, and all of his work was that of a bold man struggling to survive by the writer’s discipline. His candid, revealing books shamed other writers and always repulsed and offended parts of his audience. Early on, his publishers considered him unique “for sheer intensity of feeling, for conveying utter frustration, the heart-breaking effect of constant defeat, and fear that can be dissolved only by violence.” But he insisted on taking his fight not simply to the most obvious sources of racial cruelty in American society, but to the doorstep of progressive liberals congratulating themselves for their altruism and kindness. He specialized in biting the hand that fed him, and he earned that reputation by accusing the presses that acquired him of perfidy. His first book, If He Hollers Let Him Go, made one of his editors at Doubleday remark that he “nauseated her,” which led Himes to develop a critique, which he made over and over, that the company sabotaged and cheated him. Doubleday’s editor in chief once responded testily, “We are not accustomed to having our word questioned the way you question it in that letter, Chester.” The editor would be joined by virtually everyone who ever published Chester Himes. Chester worked both sides of that street. He was the rare black writer to earn official condemnation from the NAACP.

Chester Himes soldiered on, writing books with a vulnerable honesty that left him wounded when the works floundered, typically on account of the claim that the author was too bitter, too graphic, and ignoring the progress in U.S. race relations after the 1954 Brown decision. He became, midway through his career, a scapegoat, the black writer unwilling to accept that the United States had become a blameless, functioning multiracial democracy. He was outcast for his blunt unwillingness to herald a Pollyannish future of healthy racial integration and economic justice. History has borne out some of his vinegary judgments.

In an America that was enjoying Amos n’ Andy, Himes wrote about black men lusting after white women, crippling skin-color prejudice, and the difficulty of combat against the power of corporate industrialists. Himes might have been considered a prophet if he had not begun a career in the era when Richard Wright was the recognized black writer exploring the arc of race relations, Willard Motley the best-selling author who had completely eschewed the race problem, and Ralph Ellison the shining artist-intellectual who transcended race and wrote because he loved his craft.

Although Chester wrote about Harlem and black workers struggling to get ahead, he was reared in the Deep South and Cleveland, the middle-class child of college teachers. He was the first twentieth century black American to walk the path of petty criminal and convict turned dynamic writer that would later make celebrities out of Malcolm X, Claude Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Robert Beck, Nathan McCall, and several others. Himes’s early novels—If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Lonely Crusade (1947), The Third Generation (1953), and The Primitive (1955)—revealed a fundamentally racist American society less inclined to lynch blacks but preferring to dismantle them psychologically. In his French detective series starring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, he reversed gear, discarding the exposure of corruption and ethical hypocrisy and instead exaggerating the gross carnival created by slavery and segregation. Himes resolved the pain and indignation of his life by revealing the humor in it and by acknowledging the absurdity of western humanity and the inextricability of black people from any vision of America. His vernacular tales gained wide appeal and were turned into films. The generation who became writers after the assassination of Malcolm X, proudly calling themselves “black,” defining their identities in the storm of left-wing politics and black nationalist aesthetics, considered him their forebear. Their respect and admiration was unsurprising. During his lifetime, Chester Himes published seventeen novels, a book combining a major playscript along with several short stories, and a two-volume autobiography: he left a decisive archive and a legacy that endures.

Excerpted from Chester B. Himes: A Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson. Copyright © 2017 by Lawrence P. Jackson. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Special Collections Welcomes Freshman Fellows!

For many, Special Collections is synonymous with a treasure house -- something to safeguard, but not necessarily to use.  But where's the fun with having super-cool things if no one can ever use them for research and inspiration? At the Sheridan Libraries, we are committed to generating interest in our rare holdings, be it through Halloween parties at the George Peabody Library or lectures offered by the Special Collections Research Center.

A recent example of our undergraduate outreach is Freshman Fellows, a one-year fellowship providing four, first-year students with research experience and mentoring. Generously funded by the Sheridan Society, the fellowship encourages students to engage meaningfully with primary resources and receive research guidance from Special Collections staff, all while exploring topics they selected themselves!

The competition was fierce. (Yet did we expect anything less from our freshmen? They are budding Bluejays after all!) Twenty-four students applied for the fellowship, an incredible feat considering the applicants were adjusting to college life while working on their fellowship essays. The deliberations were tough.  Not even summoning the ghost of Johns Hopkins in a vain quest for his sage guidance could make the task less fraught.  And yet we persisted, and four applicants were selected due to their passion and enthusiasm for their individual projects.

I am pleased to announce the first cohort of Freshman Fellows, and am thrilled that you, dear readers, will have an opportunity to read about their research in subsequent blog posts:

  • Kiana Boroumand: Mentored by Yours Truly, Kiana is exploring the corset-busting topic of dress reform.
  • Lucy Massey: Mentored by Paul Espinosa, Lucy is translating obscure Latin texts housed at the George Peabody Library.
  • Faith Terry: Mentored by Jim Stimpert, Faith is uncovering the early years of student housing on the Homewood Campus.
  • Caroline West: Mentored by Amy Kimball, Caroline is delving into our Shakespeare collection.

After reading their blog posts, I am sure that you will want to learn more about their discoveries.  Well, you are in luck! We will be hosting a Freshman Fellows panel discussion starting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19 in the Macksey Room.  Definitely, mark your calendars!