Folktale Speech Acts and Linguistic Politeness in Wolfram Eberhard’s Folktales of China
Yaoyao Liu and Pauline Greenhill
ABSTRACT: This study explores conversational speech acts—utterances—in the corpus of 79 narratives in Wolfram Eberhard’s 1965 anthology Folktales of China and considers their correlation to linguistic pragmatics. We find that the speech acts contained therein offer examples of linguistic politeness. We relate these locutions to Chinese concepts of face and politeness. We speculate that folktale models of politeness may help in language acquisition and development. KEYWORDS: positive politeness, negative politeness, face, folktales, speech acts
Symbolic Representations of Apotropaic Power in Edo-Era Japan (1603–1868): Shishigashira or Lion’s Head Miniature Toys
ABSTRACT: Shishigashira, or miniature lion’s head toys, were popular in Edo Japan (1603–1868). Their popularity lay in the shishi’s symbolic expression of apotropaic magical power. This paper examines why such these lion’s-head toys once appealed to people in the Edo period. This study also helps us reconsider the material culture of apotropaic objects in a contemporary context. KEYWORDS: Apotropaic magical power, Edo period (1603–1868), hōsōmatsuri, shishi, shishigashira, toys
The Modern Oral Traditional Romance and Strophic Songs of the Blind in Valencia
José María Esteve-Faubel, Rosa Pilar Esteve-Faubel, and María Teresa Botella-Quirant
ABSTRACT: Romances from modern oral tradition and the Songs of the Blind are important genres in Hispanic culture. These songs have been closely connected to the cultural world of women, who have been chiefly responsible for their transmission. They emerged between the 15th and 16th centuries, and although there is still some awareness of these songs today, recently their number has diminished to such an extent that they have almost fallen into oblivion. KEYWORDS: Romance songs, women’s song, Songs of the Blind, traditional songs, modern Spanish oral tradition.
Storytelling in Siberia: The Olonkho Epic in a Changing World. Robin P. Harris. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017. Xv + 234, acknowledgments, introduction, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. $53.28, paper)
The book focuses on the oral tradition of olonkho—an unaccompanied performance integrating drama, lyric song, and poetic narrative—as practiced by the Sakha, a Turkic people in the Republic of Sakha (previously Yakutia). Harris is particularly interested in recent efforts to revitalize this tradition with the support of the United Nations’ Intangible Cultural Heritage program (a part of UNESCO). Her presentation is rich in historical content, describing how the traditional performance went from a multi-day event in homes to truncated performances in public folk festivals during the Soviet era and into the present.
In chapter one, Harris presents olonkho as an epic performance: defining epics, discussing oral formulaic theory, and moving onto particular aspects such as tone, expression of worldview, and genre. The second chapter is a historical overview of this epic tradition from the pre-Soviet era to the present day, with attention to three key changes: the role of performers, the format of performances, and the audience. Chapter three is the intriguing tale of the two-year process of researching the oral tradition, making application to UNESCO, and UNESCO’s acknowledgment of olonko as a cultural masterpiece. Chapter four is a closer look at UNESCO priorities and how it compares to the Sakha proposal. Harris concludes that successfully carrying out the proposed activities will ensure the ongoing presence of the specific oral tradition but not necessarily as a “living tradition” (96). This sets up chapter five, in which she explores the resilience of olonkho and brings sociolinguistic-influenced approaches to her research methodology. She applies the Graded Genre Health Assessment (GGHA), a rating of 1 being International and 8 being Extinct, to olonkho. She also looks at individual aspects of olonkho performance, evaluating the opportunity for innovation (understood as the “interaction of stable and malleable [aspects] in a living tradition”) (118). Chapter six considers changes in olonkho performance and the potential for contemporary performers to continue in the tradition. Finally, Harris presents three options for the future of olonkho and offers her recommendation. According to her, olonkho may a) continue but in a set form; b) be adapted into new variants with the solo form ending; or c) with vigorous transmission and innovation flourish in the solo and other new forms. These correspond to GGHA categories 5, Locked, 4, Threatened, and 3, Vigorous.
Harris’ book is significant, accessible, and intriguing. It explores the adventure of working to reestablish an ethnic, oral tradition and considers how this might succeed in ensuring sustainability. The work is wonderfully reflexive, providing a glimpse into dialogue with key people in the revitalization effort, people who are concerned that history of the prized ethnic tradition is recounted rightly. I also applaud her application of the bridge-building GGHA approach; this facilitates colleagues’ bringing some of her insights into their own sociolinguistic research. She provides an excellent historical overview, bringing in international and Russian sources to her research. All the key pieces are in place for a Sakha-speaking scholar to do follow-up work in the coming years. The book will be of interest to ethnomusicologists, linguistic anthropologists, folklorists, turkologists, and those studying the post-Socialist area.
The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation. Ronald M. James. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2018. Pp. xvi +222, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, bibliography. $50 hardback.)
The Folklore of Cornwall aims to situate 19th-century Cornish folklore within its regional context. In particular, it seeks to rectify Robert Morton Nance’s misplaced assertion that by leaving the Celtic language and thus breaking with tradition, Cornish folklore would inevitably be lost. James shows that linguistic conversion did not result in a loss of indigenous folklore, however, and that the oral traditions that persisted were different from those found in England. Furthermore, the “droll-tellers,” Cornwall’s oral narrators, exhibited artistic creativity in their narrations; instead of ancient folklore being lost, the droll-tellers were constantly inventing and adding on to Cornwall’s oral traditions.
James’ book adds to the legacies left behind by Alan Dundes, Carl von Sydow, Vladimir Propp, and Alex Olrik. Throughout the book, James shows how the coastal setting of Cornwall shaped the way that local folklore was told. By using examples such as Cornish mermaid legends, James demonstrates that the folklore of Cornwall drew from motifs present elsewhere but with an added regional twist. Dundes, James points out, noticed that local narratives are expressions of local ecotype, and James adds to this discussion by showing how this transpired in Cornwall. Drawing on the work of Propp and Olrik, who developed classification systems for folktales, James’ work discusses how the Cornish droll-teller, free to express creativity, was limited in some respect because the narratives had to fit within a certain structure. To use James’ own words, “while the artist could change the colours, it was still necessary to paint within the lines” (167).
James’ thesis is that the oral tradition of Cornwall during the nineteenth century gave the county a unique cultural fingerprint. He shows that there are certain legends—such as those of fairies, mermaids and giants—that prevail in neighboring countries (i.e., England and Scandinavia) but that were altered to fit a decidedly Cornish setting. The reasons for this cultural uniqueness are threefold: the droll-tellers exhibited creativity and were not bound by rigid conservatism, the peninsula setting of Cornwall caused for ecological particularities of its stories, and that the isolation of the peninsula made it unlikely for an outsider to attempt to rectify changes that occurred from imported stories.
Each chapter expands on James’ central thesis and his secondary points. The first chapter gives an overview of the early collectors of Cornish folklore, while the second chapter introduces the Cornish droll-tellers, the oral narrators whose creativity gave the folklore of Cornwall its distinctive character. The third introduces the notion that while Cornish folklore fits into an international context, it has maintained a regional flavor. The fourth chapter centers around piskies, land-dwelling, fairy-like supernatural beings of Cornish lore. Chapter five shows how Cornish migratory legends about piskies are unique variant assemblages, while chapter six expands upon the legends associated with these beings. The seventh chapter is about Cornish mermaid legends, which are prevalent internationally but differ in Cornwall from other places where they are found. The eighth chapter concerns the story of the spectre bridegroom, which has a very old literary tradition. In Cornwall it has been changed to fit the maritime setting. Chapter nine focuses on legends of giants in Cornwall that originated outside of the peninsula. The tenth and eleventh chapters concern Cornish knockers, underground mine spirits, and how the legends of them changed during the periods of industrialization and emigration.
As there is a dearth of literature on the topic of the folklore of Cornwall, this book will be invaluable to anybody wishing to research that topic. This work also sheds light on migratory legends, how isolated regions have their own unique folklore, and how folklore changes due to the forces of industrialization, emigration, and modernization. Folklorists who are interested in legends as a whole as well as the taxonomies of Propp and Olrick will find this book useful as well. James’ work stands as an excellent introduction to the folklore of Cornwall and to folklore studies in general.
Folklore in Baltic History: Resistance and Resurgence. By Sadhana Naithani. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. Pp. xi + 115, preface, acknowledgments, references and conversations, index. $30 paper.)
The three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania each have their own languages, culture, and folklore; however, they also share a set of historical moments during the past hundred years. All three did the following: 1) declared their independence in 1918 following the Russian Revolution and the defeat of Germany in World War I; 2) were forced to become republics of the Soviet Union in 1940; 3) were occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944; 4) were again forced to become republics of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1989; and 5) finally declared a second independence in 1991. Sadhana Naithani, a professor in the Centre of German Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and president of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, concisely and insightfully analyzes how these historical moments—and particularly the period of forced Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991—have shaped the discipline of folklore in the three Baltic nations.
As indicated in the book’s subtitle, one key theme is resistance and resurgence—meaning that many of the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who taught folklore, collected folklore, and practiced folklore were able to resist the restrictions of Soviet rule during this period, and ultimately spark a resurgence starting in the late 1980s and continuing to the present. For source materials, Naithani has drawn not only from some of the most relevant written texts, but also from collections of oral histories and from conversations she has held with scholars, archivists, and researchers in each of the three countries.
Naithani identifies three primary sites of resistance. One is the universities, where professors were required to adopt a Marxist-Leninist perspective, but often found ways to create undercurrents to explore the distinctive cultural identifies of their respective countries. A second is the archives, where archivists likewise used “innovative thinking [for] subverting the state’s control” (46). For example, archivists would adopt new nomenclature to camouflage folkloric topics (such as religion and mythology) that would have been otherwise forbidden. The third site of resistance is the rural countryside, where “the people whose lore was being collected and taught” resided (59). In this section, which becomes the longest of the book’s seven chapters, Naithani analyzes the life stories of ordinary individuals—collected by folklorists, historians, and ethnologists—that illustrate ways of preserving one’s cultural identity in spite of a collectivist system that tried to suppress it.
Unfortunately, a few factual errors crop up in the text. For instance, the “Russian military presence” in the Baltics began in 1939, not 1938—and it would be more accurate to call it a Soviet military presence (3); the years of being “occupied by Germany” ended in 1944, not 1943 (3); the “fall of the Soviet Union” occurred in 1991, not 1989 (9); and Alan Dundes did not write a book titled “American Folkloristics” (93), though he did edit Essays in Folkloristics (1978) and International Folkloristics (1999), and also directed Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt’s 1982 doctoral dissertation, which was titled, “American Folkloristics.”
These minor caveats aside, Folklore in Baltic History is a significant contribution to the field. Although Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania escaped Soviet rule only thirty years ago, many people in those countries have forgotten or perhaps never even learned about the creative forms of resistance forged by some of their teachers, archivists, and practitioners of folklore. Also important to understand and appreciate are the current efforts of universities and archives, which are at the forefront of the folkloristic resurgence in the Baltics. As Naithani concludes, “folklore is an important character of the drama about the making, unmaking, and remaking of contemporary history and cultural identity” (100).
Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy. Edited by Timothy J. Cooley. University of Illinois Press, 2019.
Sustainability has become a keyword for our times; however, it is frequently used to refer to environmental concerns without a deeper understanding of the concept’s complexity. It was originally developed in the 1940s and 50s as a response to concerns over economic aid to “third-world countries.” It was through that creating economies dependent on first-world states and enmeshed in a capitalistic system might not necessarily be consistent with the cultural and social values of those countries. Initiatives called for recognizing three pillars—economic, ecological, an sociocultural—needed for sustainability to be successful. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued a far-reaching definition in the Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Along with an emphasis on endurance, not just preservation, the report called for recognition of the systemic nature of all domains of life, the value of diversity, and the need for collaborative development and strategies appropriate to each culture.
These tenets should resonate with most folklorists. They echo our basic theoretical premises, and folklorists (most notably the Office of Folklife and Cultural heritage at the Smithsonian Institution and the Cultural Sustainability master’s program at Goucher College) have indeed often worked with cultural issues related to sustainability, but under the names of cultural conservation or intangible heritage. Jeff Todd Titon, however, is one of the few who has mobilized ideas from sustainability to engage with definitions and concerns current in folklore and related fields, such as ethnomusicology.
This collection of essays builds on Titon’s work in “sound ecology,” illustrating his ideas with case studies and exploring theoretical implications. Contributors primarily represent ethnomusicology and folkloristics but cross over the usual divides of academic and applied scholarship. They also offer a global perspective, providing international examples and contextualizing specific examples within contemporary issues of globalization and post-colonialism as well as sustainability. Furthermore, with its emphasis on music, the volume offers a focus for exploring sustainability that is usually lacking in more amorphous studies labeled simply as “culture.” One of the issues in cultural sustainability is defining the resource being sustained. Culture can be approached as a specific group of people, as their way of life and practices, as intangible and tangible artistic expressions, as the best artistic productions of that group, or, more contemporarily, as a lens for interpreting reality and a resource for being in a social group. Music lends itself to all of these definitions, but also provides a focal point.
This well-conceived volume contains twenty-three relatively short essays that range from ponderous to delightful and inspired, from scholarly analyses of cultural expressions, groups, and events to very personal responses to sustainability issues. These are divided into five sections, each with a coherent theme tying the sometimes disparate approaches and subjects together. The essays are framed with a forward by Titon himself, narrating his personal involvement in this work. He provides an overview of public-sector work in both folklore and ethnomusicology, mentioning key publications and institutions, and offers his perspective on key concepts such as sound studies and ecology. Although he could have included more discussion of why he chose his questions, this forward gives a personal touch to the volume, consistent with sustainability. The introduction by the editor, Timothy J. Cooley, provides an excellent overview of the concepts relevant to sustainability from a cultural perspective and nicely explains the premises and vision of the volume.
Part I (Thinking, Writing, and Musicking about Sustainability) theorizes about sustainability, its role in scholarship, and its significance to the world outside academia. With less of a focus on music, some of the writing is unfortunately obtuse, but these essays provide useful insights. Mary Hufford, for example, shows how language gleaned from fieldwork in West Virginia both reflects and shapes our thinking and behavior. Rory Turner nicely defines sustainability as “an intersection of well beings” (33) and suggests that the basis for creating such intersection is a “radical critical empathy,” while Aaron Allen points out the distinction between sustainability as maintenance of status quo systems and “sustainability-change” that radically challenges our personal lifestyles and mindsets as well as our social, political, and economic systems. Drawing directly from environmental philosophies, he suggests aesthetics as a needed but unrecognized fourth pillar of sustainability.
Part II (Responding to Anthropogenic Change) includes five case studies covering a wide range of music cultures—Taiwanese garbage trucks, Mongolian pastoral nomads, musicmaking by activists in Louisiana, Alaska native initiatives compared to an Alaskan symphony based on European models, and American composer Charles Ives (who musically commented on the environmental degradation of a river). These examples illustrate the tension often found between the sustainability of a cultural group or its practices and that of the natural environment.
Part III (Musics, Sustainability, and Media) addresses contemporary technologies that are often perceived as threats to traditional culture. Instead, these essays illustrate ways in which various media have actually helped sustain certain musical styles and the communities around them. This section raises further questions about appropriation and ownership of cultural forms, about the implications of treating music as an aesthetic form that can be separated from its character as a cultural form, and about whether music divorced from its face-to-face contexts carries the same meanings when it becomes a “product” for entertainment, archival preservation, or the marketplace.
Part IV (Voice, Language, Trauma, and Resilience) examines the role of the voice and language in the resilience of cultures, communities, and individuals confronted by trauma. These case studies examine culture not as an abstract concept but as actual communities of individuals; there, music has provided a medium through which social networks have remained alive and active, vital to the sense of belonging and identity. The essays reflect the theoretical understanding that tradition is dynamic and fluid, a resource that can be adapted to new circumstances and for new purposes. As such, music can play a central role in what Burt Feintuch characterizes as a cultural integrity within those groups.
The final section, Part V (Applying Sustainable Practices), explores resiliency in music traditions. Examples are drawn from a disparate range of musics: concert piano in the “classical” western sense; Flamenco music in Spain that has brought prestige to a city and has resulted in the sustainability of a marginalized group of people, the Roma; a community music school in New England supporting Francophone traditions; musings on the role of fieldworkers in sustaining intangible heritage in Maine; and a history and critique of surf music and its role in the metaphorical as well as literal colonization of the Hawaiian peoples. This scope suggests the range of strategies available for activism and advocacy.
This volume is inspiring in that it offers new ways of looking at cultural sustainability, contributes often unexpected but delightful case studies, and makes direct connections between scholarly theorizing and applications to “real-life” concerns. Although it could use more contextualization of some basic concepts—culture, community, and even sustainability itself—it would be excellent for classroom use, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The chapters are an ideal length for student assignments and would inspire much discussion. They also model fieldwork and research design and could easily be the basis for assignments.
More significantly, the book demonstrates that ethnographically based culture-studies scholarship can be mobilized for understanding social, political, economic, and environmental issues and developing strategies for improving life. I hope this volume will inspire more folklorists to explore ways in which their own work can speak to cultural sustainability. This volume offers models for that. By contributing to such theorizing and scholarship, it will fulfill one of Titon’s most significant points, borrowed from Wendell Berry, that in order to further sustainability—and scholarship—we need to “feed the soil, not the plant.”
Living Ethnomusicology. Margaret Sarkissian and Ted Solís. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2019. Pp. xx + 480, foreword by Bruno Nettle, prelude, acknowledgments, introduction, 52 photographs, postlude, afterword by Mark Slobin, works cited, index. $32.00 paperback. $125.00 hardcover.)
Living Ethnomusicology is unlike any book in its field to date. Several foundational texts have attempted to describe, if not define, ethnomusicology, but this work takes a different approach. Sarkissian and Solis, established figures in the discipline, undertook a massive project: interviewing fifty scholars over the course of more than a decade to represent ethnomusicology through the diverse lives of ethnomusicologists themselves. In a field known for ethnography and oral tradition in marginalized cultural contexts, the lives of the researchers themselves are often downplayed. Here Solis and Sarkissian offer an insightful ethnography of some of ethnomusicology’s ethnographers, allowing readers to understand the history and nature of the discipline through a more three-dimensional, biographical lens.
The authors’ goal in this study was “to present a reasonable cross-section of the profession, highlighting the diversity of backgrounds, career paths, and opinions that characterize us” (xvii), and they succeed within their stated limitations. It is difficult to find another source that discusses ethnomusicology applied in the public sector and in musicmaking alongside its presence in libraries, museums, and academic institutions.
The authors’ creative approach to structuring the book makes the content sing: rather than presenting each interview as a whole, they contrast the subjects with one another in three different life stages. Readers first explore the interviewees’ education and formative years, then their professional careers, and finally their personal reflections about ethnomusicology itself. The first section presents the interviewees chronologically, the second section groups them according to professional roles, and the third section of reflections is alphabetical in an attempt to “avoid unintended hierarchies” (xvii). The foreword by Bruno Nettl, famed ethnomusicologist and a former teacher for both authors, provides valuable framing for the work. His foundational words hold even more weight in the shadow of his recent passing (d. January 15, 2020). In the Afterword that closes the book, Mark Slobin, another leader in the field, summarizes and points to the work’s future significance.
Part one describes a variety of personal backgrounds, from a piano major born in rural America in the 1920s, to a gender-fluid Taiwanese American pianist, to a devout Christian college student in the 2000s. Part two begins with a word of caution on how differences in career trajectories within ethnomusicology tend to be exaggerated; it is important to remember that all the participants research, teach, and apply their research in their context. Through curated interview segments, the authors offer windows into varying roles and contexts: building a research institute in Delhi; managing, publishing, recording, composing, or performing traditional music in the U.S. and U.K.; considering sound culture in the public sector; and studying, teaching, or administrating in academic institutions. Part three’s reflections somewhat predictably correlate to the individuals’ roles, locations, and interests, with long-time scholars speaking of the precarious balance between musicology and anthropology (or preferring one over the other), and many outside of academia bemoaning the “-ology” in ethnomusicology and the required scholarly language in writing within the discipline. Still, most expressed gratitude for the vast opportunities born out of the interdisciplinary nature of ethnomusicology, and many gave examples of their current professional projects.
While this type of biographical research and narrative is a refreshing step forward in defining ethnomusicology and highlighting its diverse participants, it begs for a second volume that is more internationally focused. Only fifteen of the fifty interviewees, for example, were born outside the U.S. or U.K. This inquiry could be greatly enhanced by ongoing demographic studies on the backgrounds of incoming students of ethnomusicology or world music around the world. Asking “Who are ethnomusicologists?” is foundational to understanding the field, but an even broader cross-section of research participants would create a more accurate picture. Promoting and recognizing the increasing diversity of ethnomusicology scholars has become an expressed concern in the U.S.-based Society for Ethnomusicology, and though Sarkissian’s and Solis’ research limits are more than understandable, greater collaboration in a broader study would enable more accurate representation. Funding is needed for larger studies that unlock the research potential of international champions of traditional music who may be outside the realm of academia, such as those listed as liaisons for the International Council of Traditional Music (see http://ictmusic.org/world-network). Even greater diversity in ethnomusicology is attainable in today’s interconnected world.
Nevertheless, this pioneering book will be helpful to new and potential ethnomusicology scholars seeking to explore how they might incorporate their ethnomusicological interests and knowledge into various career paths. It will also be of interest to current ethnomusicologists in showing and affirming the interdisciplinary background and nature of this field. Finally, for those entrenched in scholarly pursuits within ethnomusicology, this book serves as a refreshing reminder of the inspiring humanity behind scholarship, and the importance of the biographical lens in historical analysis.
The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age. Zachary J. Violette (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. Pp. 288, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, index. $39.95 paper.
In a traditional view of the late 19th-century housing revolution, reformers replaced the ramshackle slums of the antebellum era with multifamily tenements, only to see this new housing exhibit the same miseries, including vice and disease, that had plagued the old shanties. In this detailed study of tenement housing in New York and Boston, architectural historian Zachary Violette refines that stereotype, stressing a “disconnect between what tenement residents wanted and what housing reformers wanted for them” (60) and contrasting the “model tenement” favored by many reformers with the “decorated” tenement popularized by immigrant builders. In emphasizing the social tensions embedded in concrete and plaster, The Decorated Tenement reveals the complex class interactions of the Progressive period.
Violette’s use of floor plans and photographs facilitates his discussion of how the “improved tenement” of the 1890s offered upper-class amenities such as mantels and bathtubs that many considered inappropriate to tenants’ working-class station. That tenants sometimes used these novelties in new ways—many bathtubs stored fuel—he sees as signs of immigrants’ ability to adapt “purpose-built” housing to their own requirements. As much as reformers might have privileged privacy and airiness, tenants used to the confines of European cities often saw their apartments as hybrid spaces, with kitchens welcoming not only cooking and eating but also “family room” conviviality and home-based businesses.
Violette also adds nuance to the stereotype of absentee landlords gouging the residents of wretched hovels. In fact, many tenement owners were, like their tenants, members of the same New Immigration wave—nearly half of them Eastern European Jews—that horrified ethnic purists and other immigration foes. They made leveraged investments in risky properties, sought to make them appealing in a competitive rental market, and sometimes lived in the buildings themselves, as managers and janitors. As members of a struggling bourgeoisie in a democratizing America, they made buildings that were “an exercise in equality, breaking down, visually at least, the sharp class distinctions of the era” (90).
Many of these builders adopted the contemporary European vogue for lavish façades, which gave their properties the “decorated” look of Violette’s title. In showing why the “fantastic shapes and unfamiliar profiles” of these facades mattered, he emphasizes the builders’ attempt to appropriate for working-class tenants the architectural fashions normally associated with the privileged while giving those fashions a new semantic valence. He sees carved satyr heads, gargoyles, and ornamented entryways not as mere exotic embellishments but as signs of immigrants’ consciousness of community: Jewish builders, for example, often adopted Moorish motifs for tenements and synagogues. Many builders decorated interior spaces as well. The “better tenement” foyers featured mosaic tile floors and elaborate newel posts, while individual apartments advertised their residents’ good taste with the presence of “applied mantels” over marbleized slate “hearths.”
The vogue for ornamentation revealed what Henry James called “a new style of poverty,” which offended Anglo-American elites suspicious of display. An 1892 article in a Boston trade journal, for example, condemned the “craving for mere display, the heartless vulgarity which is characteristic of certain elements in the community” (173)—those elements being immigrant builders and architects who were introducing flourishes to a class that did not “need” them. The same democratization, Violette notes, could be seen in the working-class adoption of elite clothing styles, as an “emergent ready-made clothing industry” enabled workers to copy the “vagaries of cosmopolitan fashion.” Evidently, at a time when Thorstein Veblen was skewering the conspicuous display of the leisure class, invidious emulation was no less a factor in how the laboring millions dressed and housed themselves.
The ghost of Jacob Riis hovers behind Violette’s text, embodying a liberal sensibility that oversimplified the lived experience of the workers it defended, substituting for their aspirations a “gospel of simplicity” that reformers believed they needed. Violette shows that this drive for puritanical austerity was a moral as well as an aesthetic project. Providing workers with “model tenements” was a means of refining their tastes and habits, while frills like elaborate cornices and window boxes were taken as cynical attempts to “distract attention from the problematic living conditions found within” (198). This “improving” notion was not shared by tenants themselves, who embraced the “frills” as signs of respectability. Violette argues convincingly that immigrant residents of the Gilded Age tenement were not merely a “vulnerable and exploited class” but “consumers with agency.”
The book’s own architecture is admirably linear, with a well-organized text supplemented by an index, period illustrations, and superb contemporary photographs, many in color, by Sean Litchfield. A bibliography would have been a welcome companion to the forty pages of notes, and a glossary would have eased our understanding of “brick pilasters,” “colossal orders,” and “cladded oriel windows.” But these technical challenges do not limit the utility, or the beauty, of this persuasive volume. It gave me, a onetime New Yorker, an expanded and nuanced view of the urban landscape. It should prove equally stimulating to social historians, immigration scholars, and folklorists who study vernacular architecture.
Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict & Displacement. Edited by Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2018. pp. ix-330, List of illustrations, acknowledgment, notes on contributors, index. $29.95 paper.)
Every war is different, but all involve the movement and transformation of everyday objects—a bronze statue, a street sign, clothing. For instance, as people have been displaced by conflicts and wars, they have brought meaningful possessions with them “despite their everyday-ness” (2). When countries conceded and treaties were signed, the location, physical form, and meaning of these objects changed. Often, over time, such possessions were memorialized, by the owners or their descendants, “because of the value they accrued as they accompanied displaced peoples on their travels” (2). Some objects were proudly displayed and donated to museums, while others were hidden away in closets. Nonetheless, the emotional link developed to objects provides a personal history independent of what written history may say. Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra explore this perspective of war as they analyze how objects connect people and place during forced mobility.
The book aims to analyze “the displacement of people and things in times of war” (5), mostly in the European theater of war and its former colonies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—a period that drastically changed political interests, ethnic groups, and the cultural landscape. Just as these objects often changed their physical form or meaning over time, the book aims to change the reader by challenging preconceived notions about these objects as they “both move and move us” (311). The book reveals military and civilian relationships to objects as seen from both sides of a war. What is the most important item one takes when fleeing an invasion? What does one keep to survive during battle? What does one pillage from the objects left behind in a war zone?
The chapters can be read as standalone essays, since each is written from a different academic discipline, such as European, East European, and Military History; German; Museum Studies; Literature; Religion; Western Civilization; Anthropology; and Folklore. The book is organized into three parts (political, personal, and descendants), with three to four essays per section. The first section analyzes the conquerors’ aggression in collecting war trophies. For instance, historic buildings that housed heirlooms and antiques meant to be seen but not touched were looted and turned into hotels or entertaining venues for the conquerors, who used them to find comfort and escape the destruction around them. The second section investigates how objects help people survive, whether they are fighting for their country or are held in captivity. The third section considers how objects stand in for loved ones lost in the violence of war. The object and its story are passed down through generations and become memorialized over time, both publicly and privately. This section goes beyond the relationship of people and place—it asks the reader to ponder what the object says about itself.
Objects of War uses recent memory and photographic evidence (unavailable in earlier centuries), challenging the version of history often based on secondhand accounts written by powerful nations. Auslander and Zahra give voice to the people affected by conflict, some of them otherwise not studied because they did not remain in the country affected by the war.
Auslander and Zahra even took the risk of including Noah Benninga’s perspective on the horrific conditions of concentration camps. Benninga claimed that Jewish prisoners with specific trade skills, like sewing, created a hierarchy within concentration camps as a way to survive. His idea was that tailoring baggy, blue-striped pajamas into well-fitting suits and hats connected these skilled laborers to their capturers and resulted in more respect from their fellow inmates. This, however, has created a controversy among scholars who believe that the Holocaust is off limits. For them, concentration camps were nothing but horrific and thus could not be considered as a way for Jewish prisoners to move up in society. Whether readers agree with Benninga or not, “The Bricolage of Death: Jewish Possessions and the Fashioning of the Prisoner Elite in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942-1945” makes a bold claim and leaves the reader with a haunting curiosity to take a second look at the past.
The book does not spend much time on the obvious military objects obtained, personified, and valued during war—except for Brandon Schechter’s chapter, “Embodied Violence: a Red Soldier’s Journey as Told by Objects,” which examines medals, paperwork, equipment, and weapons. “Small Escapes: Gender, Class, and Material Culture in Great War Internment Camps” analyzes how soldiers used domestic roles connecting them to their former life or wife—like chef, gardener, decorator, or entertainer—to create a home-away-from-home feeling among their fellow inmates and throughout their camp.
Objects of War examines the objects of people moving out of war-torn areas rather than the changing relationship and value of objects to the civilians or indigenous people who remain behind after the conflict. Auslander and Zahra challenge scholars to pick up where they left off and research their own unanswered questions that involve occupation and conflict, such as “How do forced migrations transform the material culture of communities left behind?” (312).
Overall, Objects of War is a thought-provoking book that asks the reader to consider the value of everyday objects in nontraditional ways as they are transformed during and after war. The book is a worthwhile read and a moving reminder that no matter how technology changes warfare, the conflict touches ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Objects—whether political, cultural, or emotional—are reminders of people and the spaces they occupy before and after a war.