Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Susan Pedersen

Susan Pedersen is Professor and James P. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She specializes in British history, the British Empire, comparative European history, and international history. She is the author of several books, including Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience. Her new book is The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire.

Recently I asked Pedersen about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve always got a number of books going at once. I live with a pile in my office, and another pile on the living room table, and another pile next to the bed (those tend to be the novels and biographies). Here’s what’s at the top of the piles right now:

I’m a chapter or two into Frederick Cooper’s Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton University Press, 2014). I’m reading this for a lot of reasons. Cooper has been writing African and imperial history for decades, and here he’s tackling a really important moment: the period of decolonization in French colonial Africa. What he wants to do, I think, is to challenge the nationalist teleology that we’ve all somehow accepted. We tend to assume that all colonial territories were striving manfully (usually “manfully”) for independence, and that the nation-state was the inevitable and only valid outcome. But we also now know how hard it is for new nation-states to thrive in a globalized world in which they often have very little economic power or autonomy. Cooper argues that African leaders were well aware of those dangers, and worked hard to imagine an alternative models – federation, for example – that might preserve some tie between the component parts of the French empire while ending racial hierarchy and subjection. After writing The Guardians, I tend to think that no alternative to what I’ve called “normative statehood” was really possible after 1945, but I want to see whether Cooper can convince me otherwise.

The other book I’m reading is very different, and speaks to some personal dilemmas I’m facing – along with millions of other fifty-somethings with aging parents – right now. This is Jane Gross’s A Bittersweet Season: Caring for our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf, 2011). My father died two years ago, and my mother is in her eighties and living on her own in Western Canada, where she grew up and has friends; all of her children live thousands of miles away. She’s losing her short-term memory, and her four children have been engaged in a fierce email debate (she won’t use email) about what we should do. Entirely typically, two children felt it was imperative she move into an assisted living facility where she’d get some meals and at least a daily check; two (including me) felt we shouldn’t force her if she didn’t want to move. Gross wrote this book after coping with her own mother’s move from Florida to an assisted living facility and then a nursing home in New York, and she’s incredibly illuminating about what she learned in the process. She helped me recognize some of the mistakes we were making: we were absolutely falling into the pattern of heroic early intervention, thinking that we would find some solution that would “solve” the problem of my mother’s isolation and aging and give us our lives back. Gross helped me see that that’s illusory: we’re all in this for the duration; we should slow down and make deliberative decisions, involving my mother and honoring her wishes as much as possible. That’s hard: we all have busy lives with lots else to do; we also are genuinely worried about her living on her own. For now, we have compromised on having a home help come in; we’ll bow to her desire to remain in her own home, but she has to agree to have some help. I really recommend Gross’s book to anyone else dealing with these difficult issues.

Finally, I just finished Hermione Lee’s lovely biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I gave some rather posh lectures at Oxford in 2014 (The Ford Lectures), and the experience was difficult: I was in Oxford without my family; I had to march into a cavernous lecture hall every Friday and hold forth to whoever happened to show up. But people were kind; I made some new friends; and I took advantage of some empty evenings to read every novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and Jane Gardam. I fell so lastingly in love with Fitzgerald that I had to read Lee’s biography, which I found perfect: revelatory but also respectful. Fitzgerald didn’t have an easy life: she married an attractive but often drunken Guardsman; she found herself the main support for three children; she was a proud woman who insisted on keeping up intellectual standards however bad things got; she only became a successful author late in life. The novels are beautiful and consistently surprising, and Lee honors Fitzgerald’s brilliance and grit. I loved this biography.
Learn more about The Guardians at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue