New and noteworthy – 10 March 2016

Epistolary adventures from Lincoln to Louisa May Alcott, universities v courts, and hard times and hope in Stoke-on-Trent: must-read scholarly titles

March 10, 2016
Person writing letter with metal quill

The Edinburgh Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Letters and Letter-Writing
Edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier, Judie Newman and Matthew Pethers
Edinburgh University Press

“There are striking divergences between the Postal Age and the Internet Age,” opines the prologue of this brilliant bumper resource for epistolary studies – ie, the field of reading other people’s proto-emails with purely historical motives, back when it was all beautiful copperplate, studious quotations, intricate subclauses and all-caps MY DEAR AND TENDER FATHER-type salutations. Louisa May Alcott (sick of fan mail), Abraham Lincoln (a postal threat a day), Solomon Northup, Henry James, Thomas Jefferson: their pronouncements, peeves, politicking, piety, mad pashes and quill-pen-supply particulars are all here.

How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design
Katherine Isbister
MIT Press

In which a computational media scholar argues that, far from spawning a race of anomie-gripped loners, designers of video games use choice and flow to help create empathy and other positive emotional experiences. Or perhaps not always so positive, you may suspect of Japan’s “2-D” fans playing Love Plus (with its array of lemur-eyed nymphettes awaiting “cuddling”). However, sharp-eyed looks at The Sims’ “living dollhouse”, the comical battles of Hit Me! and lump-throated accounts of the shutting-down of City of Heroes’ servers do suggest that all human life is here. Albeit probably in the basement.

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist
Anne Boyd Rioux
W. W. Norton

Compared in her day to the Brontës and Jane Austen and attracting tremendous critical and popular success, 19th-century American writer Woolson left a body of work that was, as this fine and detailed study’s epilogue observes, “dismissed as Victorian in the early twentieth century and then as not sufficiently feminist in the late twentieth”. But Rioux’s book makes a strong case for reassessing this contemporary and close friend of Henry James (and “contributor to his conception” of his heroine Isabel Archer) whose work presages Edith Wharton and who met her end, perhaps at her own hand, in Venice.

Courtrooms and Classrooms: A Legal History of College Access 1860-1960
Scott M. Gelber
Johns Hopkins University Press

Did US courts, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, always observe deference to universities? Not these days, says historian Gelber, but in picking through a century of suits and opinions in this satisfyingly thorough account, found “nearly absolute respect for academia” until the 1960s. Herein lie tussles over admissions (women, Jews, Christian Scientists), expulsions (carrying a revolver; being “undesirable”; radical speech), and tuition, from divorce courts obliging parents to pay up to ex-sailor, socialist and “lawyer for hoboes” Mark Litchman bringing a suit in 1915 that argued that $10-a-term fees contravened Washington State University’s constitutional promise to be “open to all”. Expressing sympathy, the judge still ruled that “open” did not mean “free”.

Distress in the City: Racism, Fundamentalism and a Democratic Education
Linden West

To Stoke-on-Trent, where an impressive and valuable case study surveys a post-industrial city struggling with poverty, malfunctioning democracy and narrowed educational opportunities, and where Islamism, Islamophobia and the BNP take hold. But its first-person accounts – from Aatif the community leader worried about radicalisation to Workers Educational Association activists Red Mick and Kerry and Andrew the minister – reveal honest, articulate people rather than “Broken Britain” ciphers, and the “resources of hope” that West details end the book on notes of pride, compassion and determination. Recommended.

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