Friday, March 2, 2012

Greg Robinson

Greg Robinson, a native of New York City, is associate professor of history at l'Université du Québec à Montréal.  His books include A Tragedy of Democracy.

His new book is After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics.

Last month I asked Robinson what he was reading.  His reply:
Much of the reading I have been doing lately has been in connection with my new Ph.D. seminar on "History and Biography"--the first doctoral level course I have ever taught. The course is designed to be thematic in nature, and to assist the students in the course, none of whom is a specialist in History of the United States, in thinking about their dissertations. I have thus outlined various forms of biography to cover in turn over the semester—political history, women’s history, autobiography, psychohistory, etc. as well as historical fiction. In the same way, I have tried to spread my wings a bit in deciding on what course readings to assign my students. It has been particularly fun for me to select various classics of the biographical genre and to read through them (primarily in French) in order to gain insights for class discussions.

Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars gets a bad rap for being composed of scandalous tales of the private lives of the Roman emperors. What struck me in Suetonieus’s portrait of Augustus was how simple and human he was, down to his wearing the ancient Roman equivalent of platform heels to look taller. (Admittedly, this was deflating the God Augustus had been made). I also appreciated Suetonius’s logical sense as a researcher in investigating surviving palace furniture to judge the ostentation at Augustus’s court. I did wonder how Suetonius, writing a hundred years after Augustus’s death, found records of the color of his teeth.

Another fun read was the entry on Michelangelo in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Michelangelo was the only living artist to be featured in Vasari’s first edition—such was his reputation even during his lifetime! Vasari gives us an account of the great man’s life, then makes him come alive in very human terms by repeating a whole series of anecdotes featuring his pithy (not to say bitchy) remarks about other artists.

Conversely, James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, at least in French translation, seemed rather slow going: the exhaustive account of Johnson’s conversation was, well, exhausting at times. Though Boswell is often slammed as obsequious, I was reminded just how central he is in his biography, which is really about Johnson’s relationship with him. I could not help thinking of the work in funny counterpoint with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Also, one surprising thing I had not noticed before (and do not know whether it is generally remarked upon) is Boswell’s references to a freedom suit brought in 1778 by a Black slave in a court in Scotland. Unlike Johnson, a critic of slavery, Boswell affirms his approval of the institution and support for the slave trade.

Another work that was a joy to rediscover was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, though it fits somewhat loosely into the biographical genre. Penned by a celebrated mystery novelist, the work recounts how a police detective sidelined by injury uses the tools of his trade in the service of biography, challenging the received portrait of King Richard III as a murderer. It is compulsively readable, and also suggests methods of deductive analysis to the attentive reader.

I have been reading one book entirely for pleasure: Jonathan Gill’s Harlem. A tour de force history of Harlem through 400 years, the book combines urban history, cultural criticism, and many other elements. To his credit, without reducing the primary role of African Americans, Gill studies Jewish, Italian and Puerto Rican communities as well, and digs up a multitude of new information that he incorporates with seeming effortlessness in his study.
Learn more about After Camp at the University of California Press website.

Writers Read: Greg Robinson (July 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue