My Evolving Identity

 

10901090303_16118622bb_zI’ve just read a thirty-page article called “Whitman Music: The Problem of Adaptation.” A critical analysis of musical settings of Whitman’s poetry, the article was published in the 1965 issue of Books at Brown, a journal devoted to materials in the Special Collections of Brown University’s library. The author is Peggy Z. Rosenthal.

I turn to the contributors list at the back of the journal to learn more about this author. I see that her article is “based on the honor thesis which Mrs. Rosenthal [this is so long ago that "Ms." hadn't yet been born] contributed to The American Civilization program. Mrs. Rosenthal graduated magna cum laude from Pembroke College in June 1964.”

What the contributors’ bio omits is that Mrs. Rosenthal, as Peggy Zierler, studied music composition all through elementary and high school, while writing poetry for the high school literary magazine. Hence her interest, for her college honors thesis, in musical settings of poetry. (It was her thesis advisor who suggested basing her thesis on the Brown library’s unusual collection of musical settings of Whitman.)

Nor does the bio mention that Peggy Zierler married Mr. Rosenthal just before her senior year of college, commuting to Brown from their apartment at MIT, where he was doing graduate work. In order to get married as a Pembroke student, she needed a permission letter from the Pembroke Dean. The letter also stipulated that Mrs. Rosenthal would not be allowed to spend the night in the Pembroke dorms; her experience as a married woman would not be a good influence on her (supposedly) virginal peers.

After Brown, Mrs. Rosenthal went on for a doctorate in literature, where parts of her dissertation on Whitman’s poetry were published in scholarly journals in the early 1970s, under the name of P. Z. Rosenthal. She chose the initialed name in order to disguise her gender. Women in academia were still few, and considered intellectually inferior by the male majority, so she strategized that a non-gendered name would be more likely to gain acceptance by journal editors. [Read more...]

Elsa Blue and Frozen Power

ElsaFrozenFor Chad Thomas Johnston

Along with Kermit green, Barbie pink and—Lord have mercy—SpongeBob yellow, we can now officially add another color to the commercial childhood color spectrum:

Elsa blue.

Not the uninspiring medium light-blue of the golden-haired Disney Cinderella, the color of hard-sided Samsonite suitcases and redolent of 1950s animation, but a far more rarified shade, mixed with white and the tiniest drop of yellow-gold. A color that is just a step closer to Tiffany blue, and I bet you anything that this is not a coincidence.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, and have been preoccupied with your life of craft beers and reading Teodor Adorno, “Elsa blue” is the chief signifier and synecdoche of the 2014 animated film Frozen that recounts the story of two orphaned princesses in the Norwegian-inspired kingdom of Arendelle, the older of whom—the now-Queen Elsa—has the lethal and hidden power to create snow and ice.

[Read more...]

Everyone Deserves Clean Grout and Starched Linen

Pie Counter (1963), Wayne Thiebaud For my junior high school Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Lesca Black, who taught me how to press every seam once you’d sewed it, and for Dr. Sandra DeJong, who said she thought I might be a feminist, after all.

It all began, I suppose, with the hardbound set of Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks my mother ordered by subscription, lined up on a kitchen shelf between utilitarian metal bookends.

There was one hardbound volume for each European region, and multiple volumes for the regional cuisines of America, each covered in darkly-lit photographs reminiscent of still-life paintings. The volume for France had a picture of a cheese soufflé; the book for Austria (Austria?) had a gingerbread house frosted with royal icing and studded with candies—a Middle American fantasy of an Alpine Christmas.

“Let’s make that!” I always said to the nearby humoring adults, who were willing to let me make a mess in the kitchen but were not otherwise interested in “projects.” [Read more...]

These Boots Are Made For…Beauty

bootsGuest Post by Tania Runyan

I’m washing dishes while my third-grade daughter and her friend blast a One Direction song:  “Oooh oh, you don’t know you’re beautiful,” whines the mop-haired adolescent singer.

“Uh, yeah I do!” I shout, and shake my butt at the sink. The girls scream and scramble from the room.

The song attempts to come off affirmingly: the girl lacks confidence and stares at the ground, but she’s actually gorgeous, so much so that—get this—she doesn’t even need make up!

Who are these boys, who appear on pink pencil cases at the mall, to decide whether a girl deserves to be beautiful? I’d like to discount the whole notion as superficial and sexist. [Read more...]

Women Who Make America

Imagine that you’re in grade school in the 1950s. At Thanksgiving, Uncle Richard turns to you and asks, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ah, but this is a trick scenario. Uncle Richard will turn to you only if you’re a boy. And you’ll answer “a mailman” or “a doctor” or “a policeman.”

If you’re a girl, Uncle Richard won’t turn to you with this question. As far as his question goes, you’re invisible. Because he already knows, along with all of American society, what you’ll grow up to be. If you’re a white middle-class girl, you’ll become a wife and mother. If you’re a black girl living in poverty (as most black families were), you’ll become a housemaid…as well as wife and mother in your own home.

It’s this reality of women’s lives in the 1950s that the magnificent documentary, Makers: Women Who Make America, begins with. The three-hour film aired on PBS in February, but you can stream it in one-hour segments here.
[Read more...]


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