Linda Gordon on Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Linda Gordon was interviewed yesterday on NPR’s Morning Edition about her new book, Dorothea Lange:  A Life Beyond Limits.  Many of you are probably familiar with Gordon’s career–NYU historian and a winner of muliple prestigious historical prizesfor her books going back nearly 35 years–all the more impressive because her work is unabashedly feminist.  Her new work on Lange sounds fascinating–the linked interview gives an overview of Lange, a San Francisco portrait photographer whose work for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression gave her photos a national audience.  Gordon’s work may also be of interest to historians of disability–Lange had a withered foot that was the result of a bout with polio at age 7, and Gordon mentions it more than once during the interview.  (Lange even made her foot the subject of a striking “self-portrait.”)

Although I don’t write modern U.S. history, that’s the field I end up reading in for fun more than any other, especially biographies of women.  It’s seems like it would be so easy and relaxing to write histories and biographies of women who were literate and wrote stuff down!  I suppose the challenge is sorting through all of those letters and journals and newspaper accounts and finding the narrative within the deluge of documents.  (I’d be interested in hearing from those of you whose work is on more recent history–how do you do it?)  Another challenge I don’t have to deal with:  a living subject, or living intimate family members of my subjects.  For example, I remember reading about the tsuris Daniel Horowitz endured from Betty Friedan when publishing his brilliant biography of Friedan, in which he revealed her early journalism on behalf of the Communist Party.  And boy, was she pissed off!  After working so hard all her life to remake her public image into that of a nice, bourgeois Smithie who was radicalized by the boredom on the ‘burbs–here comes this guy to reveal that she had bright red roots!

Are there any biographies on your summer reading lists?  (Do you shun biographies?)  Tell me.

0 thoughts on “Linda Gordon on Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

  1. I’ve got Woody Holton’s recent biography of Abigail Adams that I hope to read, maybe this summer. I don’t read biographies often, but when I do, I guess they tend to be of women.

    I do think that the challenge of more recent history is dealing with the large amount of materials. I’m in the midst of my dissertation on the integration of women into the US military after World War II (through the late 1970s), and when I arrived at the National Archives, the first collection I had to go through was more than 100 boxes of material. That included policy documents, newspaper articles, memos, correspondence – you name it, it was there (including photographs, which technically should’ve been stored elsewhere).

    And that was just one branch of the military. On top of the sources, I’ve also incorporated oral history, which involves using existing oral history sources and conducting my own interviews. I think the oral history interviews have really helped pull things together, honestly. There are a lot of common threads I hear from veterans, no matter which branch they served in or when they served.

    I think that I like putting all the puzzle pieces together, though. We’ll find out next year (when I defend) whether it all worked!


  2. Tanya–I’ve got Holton’s book too. I have to say that AA is probably the LEAST interesting woman of all time for me to read about, because she’s something of a cliche in my field. (And because my assessment of her husband still stands.) But, Holton contacted me last year because AA knew about Esther Wheelwright, the woman I’m writing about, and he wanted to get my opinion about what AA wrote about EW. So, I was just curious to see what he had done with our exchange–and it looks like I persuaded him. (And he footnotes me generously, too.) So it would seem churlish not to read it, now, wouldn’t it?

    Good luck with your research. Having 100 boxes of any size is an unimaginable weath of documents to me! I’m excited when I can find *one* letter, even a really crappy boring one, written by a woman. (I’ve got 3 for EW. No wonder people write more biographies of AA.)


  3. Wow, Tanya, that’s a lot of data to sift through! I always wondered about the data deluge of modernism, too. Such different challenges from the early fields.

    Hmmm, biographies… no, I don’t think I do read them much. I’m not sure why not. Perhaps it’s something to do with my field, which doesn’t have tons of biographies…? (I think this form is more popular in the US field, and likely also in more modern eras of study). Oh wait! I DID read one recently — of a modern American woman, in fact: Scars of Sweet Paradise by Alice Echols, about Janis Joplin. I enjoyed it very much.


  4. I don’t know about 100 boxes, but I’ve always believed more is not less when it comes to sources, and sorting through three runes carved on a rock somewhere would not do it for me. I guess I like the idea of the internet as a great aggregator of evidence, both secondary and in the medium to long run, primary as well.

    I’m trying to remember whether I’m reading or expecting to read any biographies in the near future. Meanwhile, this may be the place to report that I noticed last night that a convalescent and continuing care community somewhere near here has scheduled a big smackdown book club discussion for May 7 on Wolf Hall, so talk about a generation-spanning topic. I’ll report if they have to call in the state militia. Oh, wait, I won’t still be here in Bituminosia come May 7.


  5. I just finished Megan Marshall, _The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism_, and loved it. Although the book did make me feel guilty for not yet having taught my own daughters to read in multiple languages. Marshall ends the biography when two of the daughters marry (to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann)–I appreciated this decision, which placed their education and independent life center stage.
    I am a modern American historian, and yes the quantity of sources can be daunting. But I’m working on a new project on a little known activist with almost no records available. So I find the lessons of early modernists, who write wonderful books with only scraps, very valuable.


  6. After modern U.S. history, I have a thing for the Transcendentalists. Thanks for the recommendation, widgeon, although clearly you should be spending more of your free time drilling your children in Latin, Greek, German, and French. However do you think they’ll pass the entrance exams for college?!?

    From what I understand, the Peabody money underwrote Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing career–he didn’t start making money for a loongggg time. Historians and literary scholars are now finally writing about the women’s labor that underwrote most of those flaky-assed Transcendentalist men. I read a great joint bio of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott a few years ago–John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts, which documents the extent to which Bronson Alcott was perfectly happy to let his wife and then his teenaged and young adult daughters underwrite his dreamy uselessness. (He worked for a few years as a teacher, but then was ousted in a scandal over his lack of an orthodox Protestant viewpoint. He wrote unreadable dreck for the rest of his life. Emerson used to drop by and leave piles of money on the windowsill for the Alcott family’s support.) Matteson’s description of the trainwreck that was Brook Farm is excellent, and jaw-droppingly appalling.


  7. In this last regard, allow me to recommend: Sandra Harbert Petrulionis. To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau’s Concord. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 2006. Pp. xi, 233. $29.95.

    Which, in addition to being written by the spouse of one of my best students, is also distinguished by having been subject to a two-book review with Historiann’s own _Abraham in Arms_ in the Boston _Something_, which I think was probably the first print reviews of both books. Not sure if Sandy P. would go so far as to say “flaky-assed” (a term I like, up there with “insect masters”), but it’s up there somewhere in that category.


  8. That’s Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 2006. o.k., so the reviewer *was* a little “startled” by the “cultural cross-dressing” claim in AIA, but heck, I don’t suppose that kind of stuff comes up too often in reviewing Bruins or Celtice games!


  9. If the Transcendentalists weren’t flaky, then the word flake has no meaning. (Emerson excepted, perhaps. But he managed to make a living and helped support the Alcotts, so he gets a pass.)

    Don’t get me wrong: flaky can be good. Flakes dreamed of a world without slavery, 100 years before the Civil War. Flakes imagined women’s suffrage, 100 years before it happened. But, flakes do things like try to set up Utopian farming communities without the slightest knowledge of farming (Brook Farm). Flakes do things like write unreadable, unpublishable treatises for 50 years. Like I said: flaky-assed to the max. No wonder Louisa May decided that SELLING books was much more important than just writing them.


  10. The part of the book about the Peabody Sisters set in Cuba was expecially fascinating, with the conflicted reactions to slavery and the awkward post-puritan embrace of the exotic environment. If anyone has any more secondary cites-or primary for that matter-about American women’s ex-pat or recuperative (sometimes called “invalid”) communities in Cuba in the c. 1810s and 1820s I’d be glad to know about them.


  11. Shoot. Inaddition to the Linda Gordon book, I have now heard about three other books in the comments that I would like to read this summer, but probably won’t have time.

    I like biographies, but I used to not assign them to my students because I thought they needed something more nutritional, with lots of fiber, like an academic monograph. Then, I got knocked from my high horse and got over myself. I liked biographies before I went to grad school, so I am back to reading and assigning them. This last semester, I had my students read Louis Begley’s, _Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters_ (Yale:2010). I liked the book, the students liked it, but found it confusing sometimes. (Lots of presentism plus jumping back and forth between Gitmo and Devil’s Island).

    In terms of modern research, well, its all about what to leave out. I am working on two different projects, one on Photography in fin-de-siecle Central Europe and the other on Exhibitions in the Habsburg Monarchy. You’d be surprised how many photographs were taken in Hungary and Austria between the invention of the Daguerreotype and World War One. I know I was.


  12. Matt–given your interest in photographic evidence, the Gordon bio of Lange seems a natural for you!

    I agree with you that biographies work well in teaching. I think this is perhaps because skillfully written ones make effective and interesting arguments, but they’re wrapped into the biography of an individual so the story has more of a natural narrative arc and movement than most history monographs. I taught a research seminar on early American history and biography 9 years ago–I’m thinking of doing it again next spring when I teach another undergrad research seminar.


  13. Thinking about the teaching side of things, I’ve moved to using popular books in a science course for non-majors. Students actually read them! There is challenge, though, in finding books that are well sourced. My experience is that popularizations written by folks trained in the humanities and by newspaper reporters are in general better than books written by physical scientists. The scientist science-writers write as if knowledge was delivered to them from the divine while reporters and others cite their sources.


  14. I am a big Dorothea Lange fan and really interested in the Linda Gordon biography. I am going to try and wriggle it onto my summer reading list in the name of professional improvement.

    Historiann, I agree, the great biographies have both narrative and an argument to make. Getting the undergraduate students to find the argument in any kind of history book has been my greatest teaching challenge. Sometimes they can kind of get it in the form of a personal story.

    We have a class at WSU called history through biography. Its one of those parts of the curriculum that kind of ‘belongs’ to another colleague, but I bet if I asked nicely, I could get a crack at teaching it. The closest I’ve come to teaching a biography class was when I did the history of Antarctica. We read some monographs, and a lot of memoirs.


  15. I’d love to teach a course like that, Matt–maybe I’ll contact you off-blog to share ideas.

    truffula, that’s such an interesting comment about the differences between scientists and humanities/reporter types. It’s also perhaps the opposite of what I would expect, since we humanities types are pretty scared of science and (I would think) therefore might not have the confidence to sketch out the various possibilities. Maybe it’s a question of being invested in a *one right answer* to a problem (as scientists might be), rather than in a “show your work” approach (more journalistic I think than humanistic, perhaps.)


  16. I often use biographies as secondary reading for courses — students tend to find them more accessible, and you can get at “social history” questions really easily. And good ones are clearly offering an argument…


  17. I am one of those poor saps who MUST have some sort of pleasure reading at hand at all times – remnants of a childhood spent hiding books under the covers and between Trapper Keepers in class. Biographies are great pleasure reads for me because the book-learnin’ mitigates some of the guilt. I have picked up Lori Ginzburg’s new-ish Elizabeth Cady Stanton biography and set it on a “summer read” stack, and will now add the Lange bio and Eden’s Outcasts. I have American Eve at the ready, as well (the NYT review sold me). The book I am looking forward to most is Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion by Susan Travers – a great review and an interview of the author’s collaborator convinced me (WWII life-or-death, some heartbreak, and lots of stiff upper lips) – sooo out of my field, but irresistible.


  18. RE: History Through Biography

    Historiann, for sure, drop me an email. I’ll see who will share syllabi. I’ve even toyed with the idea of doing western civ through biography, although thats going to take more thought.


  19. As a recent U.S. historian I felt obligated to read Gordon’s new book — and was not disappointed. It’s beautifully written and compelling.

    As to other suggestions, I’m currently reading Patti Smith’s _Just Kids_. It’s both an autobiography of her early years in New York City and a biography/homage to Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m really enjoying it.


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