Useful reading in a time when, for Americans of whatever age, the rule of attire seems to be anything goes—and the sillier...

A PERFECT FIT

CLOTHES, CHARACTER, AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA

Fashion meets politics—and gets a little frayed in the encounter.

Cultural historian Joselit (The Wonders of America, not reviewed) examines American clothing styles from 1890 to 1930 as an expression not merely of the individual, but also of the body politic. With the advent of mass-produced garments and the decline in the domestic arts of sewing and mending, ready-to-wear clothing became the norm during this time, she observes, and with this norm came normative propaganda that proclaimed that “what one wore was a public construct, bound up with an enduring moral order.” This propaganda was generally mild and approving during an age when men could be expected to don their silk foulards and women their fox-skin gloves without protest, but it took on more strident tones when, in the 1920s, they began to experiment with odd colors and ever-higher hemlines, exciting prurient interest and theological condemnation in roughly equal measure. (Some years later, she writes, a Catholic priest even developed a line of clothing that, he argued, the Virgin Mary herself might wear were she to reappear on earth.) Drawing on insights from American and cultural studies, Joselit offers an account that is full of fascinating asides and historical oddments, one that gives due consideration to contemporary working-class and minority interpretations of just what constituted acceptable fashion. (As it happens, African-American and Jewish immigrant leaders, among others, urged their followers to dress respectably as a means of gaining status in the larger society.) Her study is marred somewhat by the author’s portentous and sometimes self-important tone—a characteristic of academic work in the field that is likely only to annoy general readers.

Useful reading in a time when, for Americans of whatever age, the rule of attire seems to be anything goes—and the sillier the better.

Pub Date: June 14, 2001

ISBN: 0-8050-5488-X

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2001

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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