April 2020: Cooking with Quarantine Rations & WWII Cookbooks

Not too long ago, I hated cooking. It felt like a ton of work and time and stress for a meal that would inevitably disappear in a matter of minutes. I found it hard to get invested in a daily chore that felt so Sisyphean.

And just when I was at my most existentially bitter at my daily dinner preparations, I discovered archival cooking: I was sitting with my experiential learning students in a local archive, and one of the archivists mentioned that they have some old handwritten recipes from the area’s historical families. I’d never given serious thought to cooking historical recipes before, although I’d been interested several months earlier to hear about some teachers baking Emily Dickinson cakes for their classes. I was suddenly interested.

This was also about a month before Christmas—I was looking for gifts for my family, and what better than an old cookbook? It’s an authentic artifact that lets you create your own authentic artifacts that you can touch, smell, and, best of all, eat! So, that year everybody in my family got a WWI or WWII rationing cookbook (we were also all experimenting with a vegetarian diet, so the rationing element seemed like it might be especially useful). (And one relative got a WWII “Knitting for Victory” booklet with all sorts of clothing and accessory item designs for soldiers, pilots, etc.). Before I sent wrapped the cookbooks, which were all from eBay or Etsy, I scanned them and created searchable PDFs out of them. And over the coming few weeks, I tried some of the recipes that looked interesting: eggless, butterless, milkless apple spice cake; figgy pudding; vegetable pot pie. The recipes all impressed, and they were always made with ingredients that most people already have sitting around waiting to be used: flour, canned vegetables, small amounts of sugar, etc. I found myself looking forward to trying new (well, old) recipes that felt like history lessons in themselves. And it was through this excitement that I began to get better at cooking, to become more efficient at it, and to become less stressed during the process.

Now, several weeks into a widescale shutdown in which we’re all forced to become more resourceful and strategic with our food shopping and consumption, I’ve turned back to these war rationing cookbooks as guides for how to stretch supplies, how to replace certain ingredients with other common pantry items, how to make the most with what we have, and how to keep things exciting in the kitchen (…I’m sure I’m not the only one who was making pasta 2-3 times a week in March). Beyond the novelty of the “hobby,” cooking from these old wartime cookbooks offers real benefits right now. You can become more aware of what you have in you pantry and how you can use it, sure. But more importantly, if using these recipes means going to the grocery store even a little less, it also means decreasing the risk of coronavirus transmission. “Eating for Victory” has aquired new meaning.

So with that in mind, here are a few of my favorite recipes and a few public domain rationing cookbooks. I’ve also included some of the introductions/forewords, which themselves are historical artifacts.

Oatmeal Bread Recipe

Betty Crocker’s 1943 Oatmeal Bread recipe. When available, I use coconut oil for the shortening.

Maybe my all-time favorite, Betty Crocker’s 1943 eggless, milkless, butterless “War-Time Cake” recipe. When possible, I use coconut oil for the shortening.

Click here for Lysol’s 1943 public domain victory cookbook, which might seem particularly appealing during this time of increased attention to santizing products.

And click here for British wartime cookbook organized by ingredients that you do and do not have.

Plentiful Pot Pie Recipe

Betty Crocker’s 1943 Plentiful Pot Pie recipe

Finally, for those of you looking to calm down with some cocktails, there’s plenty out there for you, too! I’ve included two pages below, but there’s more of this and plenty like it on Archive.org, HathiTrust, and other sites. Bon appétit!

Two pages on “Wine Service” from another WWII cookbook.

Two pages from Ida Bailey Allen’s “What shall we drink?” section.

March 2020: NYPL makes Ancestry database accessible from home

The New York Public Library has made its Ancestry database—usually only accessible from NYPL locations—usable from home for free during the coronavirus crisis. As the de facto archivist in my family, I was excited to learn about this change. I’d only performed genealogical research at NYPL once, and even then there was way too much to research for one afternoon. With this new availablity, any NYPL member can spend as much time as they want using the resource from home: no commute time, no commute expenses, no putting the rest of your schedule on hold for what can seem to some like a superfluous project. Now you can do all kinds of research in your spare time—whether in the middle of a sleepless night or across an entire quarantined Saturday!

I spent an entire weeked delving deeper and deeper into my family’s past, and I’ve now traced almost every line of my family back to their entrance to the United States (only one line had previously been traced back that far). Along the way I’ve made some interesting discoveries: from occupations and incomes to arrival dates and ship names to presumably unplanned progeny.

Before I go any further, let me show you this completely ridiculous version of my family’s history that I wrote for a class project in fourth grade. It was “true” as far as any of us knew. Disclaimer: it’s a close race between fact and fiction on this page.

You get the point, and you’re probably familiar with this type of ancestral embellishment already. I wonder what percentage of Americans claim their ancestors came over on the Mayflower…

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the top five of my most interesting documented genealogical finds (not all of which are from NYPL, but I think all are interesting):

In 2017, my father discovered about twelve cassette tapes with recordings of his mother interviewing his grandmother, who was born in 1889 in Lithuania, grew up there as a shepard, and came to the US alone in 1910. I digitized the tapes and hired a Lithuanian translator to translate those hours and hours of conversation into English, and was amazed to find 1984 audio of my great grandmother singing what was either a song from her Lithuanian childhood or an impromptu song about those last years of her life. You can hear her sing here, and you can follow along with the translated lyrics below. I’ve also included her family’s entry in the 1940 US Census, found through the NYPL.


You had wished me happiness,
Thank you for that.
But my happiness
Is gone forever.

The dreams are gone,
The images fade,
And only the times of the past
Squeeze the heart.

But to you I wish happiness,
To live joyfully.
Let all your happy dreams
Come true.

Let all your paths
Be covered in flowers,
Let life give you
Plenty of happiness.

And here are some (unfortunately low) quality scans of photos my grandfather took when his ship, the USS Salamaua, was struck by a kamikaze pilot in the Lingayen Gulf in Luzon. As far as I know, these are the only photographic record of that event. And beneath these are some new discoveries made on the NYPL Ancestry site: the same grandfather’s WWII draft card (although he enlisted on December 8, 1841) and his name in a muster roll aboard the Salamaua on March 31, 1945. 

Stanley Zukowski’s photos of the USS Salamaua immediately following a kamikaze attack.

If you’re unsure where exactly your relatives came from before entering the US, know that there is a huge archive of petitions for citizenship available through the NYPL’s Ancestry database. My family never knew anything about my father’s father’s father, but through NYPL’s ancestry I was able to find documents like this, which provide tons of useful information (from eye and hair color to “pock marks on the face,” from town of origin to date of arrival, from birthdate to…wait, WHAT- a photograph!?).

And here is the same ancestor’s registration for the World War I draft:

Until two weeks ago, my family knew almost nothing about my maternal grandfather’s paternal grandfather, other than that he was Irish (or at least of Irish descent) and a fireman in NYC. Using NYPL’s database, I was able to find him in the census, place an accurate name to him, find out what firehouse he was belonged to, and trace him back to ca. 1860 Ireland. Here he is with Engine Co. 61 in the Bronx in 1908 or 1909:

FDNY Engine Co. 61, Bronx, NY, ca. 1908-09
1900 Census Data for my great-great-grandfather.

And finally, here is some information that my mother researched through many trips to the NYPL and to cemeteries, farms, and other sites around the NY/NJ area. The years-long project resulted in her acceptance as a Daughter of the American Revolution.

That’s it for this post. Now go make the most of this period of isolation and get yourself to the NYPL’s Ancesty site!

February 2020: Syllabus of America’s Founding Documents and their Life in American Literature

Below is a syllabus draft for an imagined course about how America’s founding documents and ideals were praised, interepreted, answered, and contested during the first ninety years of the country’s existence. Note that nearly every text is available for free without any sign-in credentials: I post it as an open access resource for anybody interested in teaching or learning about these topics. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or suggestions!

* * *

This course tracks the lives of America’s founding documents and ideals in American literature of the era stretching from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. It takes a unique approach by analyzing not just the most famous and widely studied works of the period, but the popular poetry and fiction of newspapers of the time as well.  Students will read authors from various races, ethnicities, social strata, and geographic regions, providing a penetrating look at how differing Americans viewed themselves and their connection to their communities in distinct ways— and how the authors and their texts often challenged the pre-existing notions of the individual and community.

Some important questions that we’ll explore throughout the semester are:

  • How did different media (books, newspapers, speeches) affect the reception of the text they carried?
  • How did the Revolution and the radical ideas of liberty evident in its foundational literature shape America’s way of thinking about itself?
  • How did women’s roles as individuals and community members change (or not change) through the first half of the nineteenth century?
  • How did African American men and women see their own identities as individuals and members of a nation, and how did various other parties in the country see them?
  • How did Euro-Americans and Native Americans conceive of the Native American’s role in American history and destiny?
  • How did the literature of this period influence the way that numerous groups interacted with one another (for better or worse), and what were the lasting impacts of such relations?
Week 1——————–Day 1——————–

Introduction, Class Constitution

Due in Class:

Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” (Selections) (1776)

Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence” (1776)

———- “Laws,” from Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV (1783)

———- “Manners,” from Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII (1783)

Lucretia Mott, “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848)

——————–Day 2——————–

Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man” (Selections) (1791)Mary Wollstonecraft, “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) (Selections)

Class Constitution

Week 2
——————–Day 1——————–Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1793)

———- “Plain Truth” (1747) (Selections)

Class Constitution

——————–Day 2——————–

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1793)Class Constitution
Week 3: “Frontiers,” “Americans,” & “Native Americans”
——————–Day 1——————–Pontiac- Speech at Detroit (1763)

Benjamin Franklin, “Narrative of the Late Massacres” (1764) (Selections)

Samson Occom- “Sermon Preached at Execution of Moses Paul” (1772) (Selections)

Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782) (Selections)

——————–Day 2——————–

Philip Freneau- “Indian Burying Ground” (1788)———-“On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country” (1785)

William Cullen Bryant- “The Prairies” (1834)

[Anon.], “The Cherokee Phoenix” (Freedom’s Journal, 04 Apr 1828)

Week 4
——————–Day 1——————–Lydia Maria Child, Hobomok (1824)

William Apess, “Indian’s Looking-Glass” (1833)

——————–Day 2——————–

Lydia Maria Child, Hobomok (1824)———- “Appeal for the Indians” (1868)

[Anon.], “Varieties” [about Creek Indians & General Lincoln] (Freedom’s Journal, 23 Nov 1827)

Week 5: Women, Rights, & Republican Virtue
——————–Day 1——————–Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790)

Margaret Fuller, “The Great Lawsuit” (The Dial, 1843)

———- “Fourth of July” (New York Tribune, 1845)

——————–Day 2——————–

Ruth Bloch, “The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America” (Or find through JSTOR)Catherine Beecher- Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) (Selections)

[“A Phoenix-Hunter], “The Choice of a Wife” (NJ Journal, 12 Apr 1792)

[Lavinia], “The Lady’s Choice of a Husband” (NJ Journal, 19 Apr 1792)

Week 6
——————–Day 1——————–Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (1797)

[Anon.], “Adventures of a Bashful Man,” (NJ Journal, 1806; Freedom’s Journal, 1828)

——————–Day 2——————–

Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (1797)[Anon.], “Trust not man, for he’ll deceive you” (Genius of Liberty, 7 Jun 1798)

[Anon.], “Trust not woman, for she’ll beguile you” (Genius of Liberty, 7 Jun 1798)

Week 7: The American Gothic
——————–Day 1——————–Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland (1798)

———- “The Rights of Women” (Weekly Magazine, Mar-Apr 1798)

——————–Day 2——————–

Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland (1798)[Anon.], “Curiosities of Sleep” (The Spiritual Telegraph, NY, 1854)
Week 8
——————–Day 1——————–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836)

——————–Day 2——————–

MIDTERM PAPER DUE via BlackboardEdgar Allan Poe- “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)

Dr. Abel, “Account of an Ourang Outang of Borneo” (Freedom’s Journal, 12 Oct 1827)

Week 9: Race, Slavery, and the Gothic
——————–Day 1——————–Teresa Goddu- Gothic America (Introduction)

L.E. Lorimer, “The Haunted House” (Freedom’s Journal, 21 Sep 1827)

[Anon.], “The Buried Alive” (Freedom’s Journal, 17 Aug 1827)

——————–Day 2——————–

Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”———-“Hymn to Humanity” (Freedom’s Journal, 09 Nov 1827)

[Anon.], “Negro’s Prayer,” (New-Jersey Journal, 23 Dec 1789)

[“A Former Slave”], “The Black Beauty” (Freedom’s Journal, 08 Jun 1827)

Week 10
——————–Day 1——————–[Anon.], “A New Song, Circulated to be Sung the Fourth of July” (Centinel of Freedom, 02 July 1799)

William Pitt Palmer, “The Slave Ship” (Freedom’s Journal, 04 July 1828)

William Lloyd Garrison, “Universal Emancipation” (The Liberator, 01 Jan 1831)

——————–Day 2——————–

Frederick Douglass- “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (5 Jul 1852)“The Case of Dred Scott in the US Supreme Court” (1860)

[“A Former Slave”], “The Sorrows of Angola” (Freedom’s Journal, 08 Jun 1827, originally published on 04 July 1826)

Week 11
——————–Day 1——————–Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

The African Chieftain” (African Repository, May 1825)

——————–Day 2——————–

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)Angelina Grimke, “Appeal to the Women of the South” (1836) (Selections)
Week 12: Philosophies of America1844-1865
——————–Day 1——————–Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849)

——————–Day 2——————–

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1844)———- “Letter to Walt Whitman
Week 13
——————–Day 1——————–Walt Whitman, Jack Engle

H.A.E., “An Hour in Trinity Church Yard” (New-York Spectator, 07 Nov 1839)

[Whitman?], “A Brooklynite in N.Y. Church-Yards” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 07 Jul 1846)

——————–Day 2——————–

THANKSGIVING- NO CLASS
Week 14
——————–Day 1——————–Walt Whitman, “Poem of Walt Whitman, An American

——————–Day 2——————–

Walt Whitman, “Poem of Women”———-“A Woman Waits for Me

———-“Poem of Procreation

———-“Native Moments

Week 15
——————–Day 1——————–Annotation & Transcription

Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

———-“The Soul selects her own Society” (303)

———- “Wild nights – Wild nights!” (269)

——————–Day 2——————–

Horace Greeley, “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions” (NY Tribune, 19 Aug 1862)Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley

———-“Gettysburg Address

———-“A House Divided

January 2020: Two New Publications

This month brings the culmination of two projects of mine which have finally reached publication: “Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War,” in Early American Studies, and “‘Government in Petticoats’: Gender Poetics in New Jersey’s Newspaper Literature, 1789-1807,” in New Jersey Studies. These are my first two articles to reach publication, so I’m feeling especially proud and gratified.

I first started writing “Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War” in November 2016. The Paxton pamphlet war was a year-long storm of pamphlets, broadsides, letters, and many other documents that responded to two Euro-American massacres of Native Americans in Pennsylvania in December 1763. After those violent slayings, the group of populist frontiersmen—largely from the town of Paxton—proceeded to lead an armed march toward Philadelphia, threatening to attack the Native Americans seeking refuge there. Fortunately, the crisis was averted, but the events continued to be discussed in the pamphlet war, and tensions hardly dissipated. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, reading and writing about white populists exacting cruel and shameless violence on a friendly local ethnic group was an intense process. The parallels between the events of 1763-64 and America’s contemporary socio-political turmoil were disturbing—and still are. And the topic that my essay focuses on—the way that ethnic groups used written representations of one another’s language to assert their own dominance and superiority—resonates as much as ever today.

Like “Language Ideology,” “Government in Petticoats” was originally a dissertation chapter that I later revised into article form. It won the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance’s 2019 “Graduate Essay in NJ History Award,” which was a great honor. I was even presented the award at the 2019 New Jersey History Conference, which featured lots of important work about women in NJ’s history (the conference theme was “NJ Women Make History”). I’ve included a link and an abstract below.

Also keep an eye out for the Spring 2020 issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which will be published my article on Walt Whitman and Trinity Church!


Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War”: This essay examines the literary texts of Pennsylvania’s 1764 Paxton pamphlet war, giving close attention to the linguistic representations through which vying parties attempted to claim superiority in the Anglo-American sociopolitical hierarchy. Competing ethnic and political groups published creative literature (including poetry, dialogues, a farce, and a narrative) disparaging their opponents’ British virtue and status by lampooning their literary and grammatical acuity and emphasizing their deviation from “acceptable” spoken English. Through analysis of the pamphlet war’s portrayals of Quaker, American Indian, and Scots-Irish Presbyterian language, this essay demonstrates that the interrelated issues of language, virtue, and British identity were central to the concerns of provincial Pennsylvanians in 1764.

‘Government in Petticoats’: Gender Poetics in New Jersey’s Newspaper Literature, 1789-1807”: This essay analyzes the literature (poetry, anecdotes, fiction, and miscellanies) of New Jersey newspapers between 1789 and 1807, a period when many of the state’s women were legally enfranchised. Scholarship concerning New Jersey’s ephemeral texts by or about women and the vote during these years has been limited, often because of the archive’s perceived limitations: there is little direct reference to women’s suffrage to be found there. However, by concentrating on the literary texts often overlooked in favor of more expositive, essayistic pieces, this study sheds new light on early republican anxieties to define and control gender in the public sphere, and it offers a new critical perspective of shifting and interrelated notions of womanhood, gender, and early American ideologies of liberty, equality, and rights.


 

December 2019: Using Ben Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart in a Modern Context

A few weeks ago, I visited Philadelphia for the first real time. As we followed our Free Tours by Foot guide from one historical landmark to the next in the Old City, my wife had to be direct with me at one point and tell me to “please stop talking about Benjamin Franklin so much.” I couldn’t help it- here was his print shop and there was his house and there was his filled-in privy pit, and did you know X, and isn’t it amazing that Y, and so on.

She was right of course, but it was hard for me to be anything less than super excited while in the presence of the actual physical remnants of Franklin’s life. Although I didn’t always recognize it, Franklin has had a tremendous impact on my life. I first read his autobiography in Michelle Kohler’s undergraduate Early American Literature class at Tulane (the same class in which I first read Whitman), and I remember being genuinely inspired by Franklin’s narration of his own industry, virtue, and self-improvement.

As it happens, this was also around the same time that I had started to keep a food and exercise journal. A year and a half earlier, in January 2006, Discovery Health was giving out free fitness and nutrition journals at the mall, and (it already being January, the month of fitness resolutions), I decided to give it a go. The chart worked really well for a while, holding me accountable for my actions (or lack thereof) and giving me a sense of pride when I wrote in my accomplishments. But, like most New Year’s resolutions, I eventually got distracted and “fell too far behind to catch up” and…well, you know how it goes.

Day #2 as an 18-year old outdoes my fittest day as a now-year-old.

But the next year, when I trained for my first marathon, I remembered this little booklet, and I came back to it. It was a great tool now that I had a long-term goal, and I used it until I ran out of space. After that, I decided to design my own, based on this one but slightly tailored to my needs and wishes (and home-printer conveniences).

The week of my first half-marathon

This turned out to be a great system for training for a race- it kept me focused on daily and weekly goals, conscious of my intake of food and output of energy, aware of patterns in my diet and exercise (if my running suffered, I might look back to see if I was eating too little or too much), etc. It was a good system, but I didn’t think of it beyond goal-oriented training.

And then, about five months after that first marathon, I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography in that class at Tulane. Possibly because of my own history of holding myself accountable in a daily charts and also possibly because of my Catholic upbringing, I connected with its ethos of rigorous self-discipline and self-improvement. Here’s a passage from Chapter 9 of Franklin’s autobiography:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.

So what did he do? He created a daily chart to track his accomplishments and shortcomings of virtue.

Conceiving then, that… daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

 

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Chart

The result, Franklin reports, was great: “I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

The idea was fascinating to me. One could quantify and pin down and track and strategize his/her successes and shortcomings, rather than letting them float about uncharted in the nebulous ethers of the mind, where it’s so easy for thoughts to get lost, delayed, forgotten, etc. I revised my chart again to jettison some unnecessary things (like blood pressure, which I’d check at the free blood pressure stand at Target twice a year) and to alter the format to match my needs again. Most of all, though, I picked up the chart again not just for races (although it was crucial for my success with marathons and Ironmans) but for general well-being and self-improvement.

This became especially important as a doctoral student, when stress, lots of reading and writing and stationary (in-)activity, and an all around unusual lifestyle can significantly affect one’s health. I had put the chart down for a few years, but about three years into my Ph.D. I picked it back up, this time for a serious, long-term commitment. The chart helped me work off weight that I had gained at the beginning of my doctoral studies, and it has helped me maintain a steady weight and health ever since. It has helped me track stress, injuries, and, most of all, my work. It was during my dissertation work that I began using the chart not just as a food and exercise tracker, but as a research tracker, recording the articles or chapters I read that day, the proposals I wrote, the presentations I designed, the applications I submitted, how many pages or words I composed, etc. I took notes on my sleep habits and was able to connect that with patterns in productivity. I set goals for myself in the notes section, and I checked them off with pride. The accountability of writing down a success or leaving a space empty for a shortcoming has been a tremendous source of motivation for me. I’ll also say that I’ve learned self-forgiveness through this, because nobody can possibly be perfect all the time (as Franklin himself admitted). While one may think that this system breeds self-hate or unhealthy self-pressure, it’s actually helped me moderate the demands that I put on myself, because I know that in the past I’ve come up short and turned out fine, and I also know that it will do no good to place five articles on tomorrow’s agenda when I realistically won’t get through more than two or three.

Ah, and one other thing: the system has been fantastic for remembering what doctor I went to for X injury, and what I ordered the last time we went to Y restaurant, and what I did each day on Z vacation.

In 2019, I got tired of always printing out 2-3 double-sided sheets of paper and folding them over into little booklets that would get beat up everywhere they went, so I created a little bound booklet using the same format.

Now, heading into 2020, I decided to make a few more changes. Reflecting on my little Moleskin book in which I recorded sudden thoughts and notes during my first year at Tulane (yes, the same year I read Franklin), I added “Notes” pages to the back of the 2020 booklet. I also changed the formatting so that the open book will display one week per verso/recto, and it now includes a space for weekly strategy- a good spot for weekly goals, reflections, considerations, priorities, etc. Since it’s not just a food and exercise journal anymore, but now more a life tracker, I’ve renamed it a “Personal Almanac,” which may upset purists but to me it seems fitting. And, inspired by the Library of America’s ribbon marker, I added one into this booklet as well- a classy touch!

I’m proud to say that today is Day # 1,482 of keeping this journal, and I have no plans to stop using it and revising it any time soon. For now, I guess the only things it lacks are some Franklinesque aphorisms. I guess I’ll find some of those tomorrow, but then again:

Have you somewhat to do to-morrow; do it to-day.

November 2019: Public Fellow Work

This will be a very quick post, since it’s already December and I’m behind. I just want to give an idea of the type of work I’ve been doing as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at Library of America. The work I’ll feature here is some of the writing I’ve done for our website, since that’s easiest to showcase. What I love about the position is that, no matter what type of project I’m working on (whether an author interview, a literary timeline, or an author biography), it always builds on the skills I developed during my doctoral studies…so take that, everybody who says a Ph.D. in the humanities offers no real world skills! For example, one of the strategies I always taught my writing students was to study “mentor texts” to learn the conventions of a new genre before trying to write in that genre themselves. That has been immensely useful as I’ve had to write in completely new genres and as I’ve had to write within the parameters of an institution with its own styles, preferences, and brand. Know that I’m leaving out a lot of work that that can’t be shared yet, but stick around and you’ll see that all soon enough!

Here is an interview I conducted with two-time Pulitzer Prize-Winning NYT journalist Nicholas Kristof, who was a genuine pleasure to work with. I had attended the United Nations Association of NY Humanitarian Awards in October and was inspired by Kristof, who was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, so I reached out to interview him about the relationship between journalism, human rights, and the American past and present.

Here is an interview I conducted with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, who was the very first scholar I read for my historiography list during comprehensive exam preparations back in 2014. The interview is about Taylor’s new book on Thomas Jefferson’s ambitions for an American system of public education and on the founder’s complicated legacy in American history.

This post is a simple introduction and contextualization of a video recorded at one of our events on a new title, March Sisters, a collection of four women writers’ reflections on the influence of Alcott’s four March sister characters on their own lives.

And here is another simply introduction to a video of our recent event in which Jonathan Franzen discusses the influence of the Peanuts cartoons on his own life and on American culture.

Hope you enjoy!

October 2019: Mpreg Data Visualizations by Jon Heggestad

I always welcome guest blog posts, and this month I’m delighted to feature an inspiring post by Jon Heggestad about his exciting work in Digital Humanities (DH). As one of the leading students of DH at SBU, Jon’s contributions to the university’s DH community have been significant, and he has also been a pioneer of public writing among graduate students. I’ve always loved hearing about his projects, so I couldn’t have been happier when he suggested contributing a guest post to this site. Please read on to learn about Jon’s fascinating work on mpreg (male pregnancy) fan fiction.


Jon Heggestad is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the English department at Stony Brook University. With interests at the intersection of literary analysis, queer and feminist theories, and the digital humanities, Jon’s dissertation traces out a queer lineage of the pregnant man as a literary trope.

A Study in Data Visualizations: Describing Mpreg in Fan Writing

In Digital_Humanities, an introductory textbook to the field penned by many of the leading voices in DH, distance reading is referred to as “almost not reading at all.” The authors of this volume refer to it instead as engaging “the abilities of natural language processing to extract the gist of a whole mass of texts and summarize them for a human reader in ways that allow researchers to detect large-scale trends, patterns, and relationships that are not discernable from a single text or detailed analysis.”1

This post expands and challenges this definition by delving into one offshoot of distance reading: data visualization. While the use of charts, graphs, and pictures has a history as old as humanity itself, recent works by scholars like Matthew L. Jockers and Franco Moretti have popularized computational methods of data visualization within the humanities.

As much of my own work is conducted around texts found (or even born) online, I’ve taken to computational ways of reading to help me sift through the immense bodies of work I often encounter. In the study below, I illustrate how data visualizations have aided my work and suggest that, rather than viewing this method as “almost not reading at all,” we instead view data visualizations as merely different, albeit less traditional forms of reading, and that these differences might lead us to new epistemological understandings as well. 

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Mpreg,” short for “male pregnancy” might not be a term that the general public is yet familiar with, despite its steady rise in popularity over the past two decades as a fanfiction trope.2 That being said, its increase in popularity has garnered it more notoriety as well, with Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel, the creators of the popular podcast Fansplaining, pointing to it as one of the “most widely reviled” tropes in fanfic today.3 

And certainly mpreg is divisive among fans. While some warmly take to the idea of Sherlock Holmes rubbing Watson’s pregnant belly or Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter arguing over which crib to buy, other readers find these narratives “twisted and perverse.”4

In my own interactions with those new to the genre, however, I’ve found that the most common response is simply one of curiosity. What is mpreg? What does it entail? Yet, answering these questions isn’t the easy task that it might at first appear to be.

Archive of Our Own (AO3), a site hosting millions of fan-made stories, returns over 43,000 texts when “mpreg” is entered in the search field.5 One of the most useful questions that distance reading responds to is how to deal with such a large corpus.

One possible solution is offered through data visualization, which can provide—at a glance—a level of insight that might not be achieved even after weeks of reading these texts. That being said, I’ve still elected to draw some constraints around the scope of my inquiry, analyzing only the 1,400+ mpreg works found in the MTV series Teen Wolf fandom.

Fig. 1: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics (click to take a closer look)

Using a text scraper created by Jingyi Li and Sarah Sterman (current graduate students), I gathered the metadata from the Teen Wolf mpreg fics in a spreadsheet, isolating the tags writers had used to identify their works.6 After cleaning this data, I then used Tableau (a data visualization software) to organize and display the results. The bar graph in fig. 1 depicts the 50 most common tags used by mpreg writers in the Teen Wolf fan community.7

“Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics” is the most frequently used tag, and it comes as no surprise for fans who know that mpreg is a subgenre within the larger Omegaverse genre of fanfic. Frequent occurrences of tags like “Mates” and “Derek and Stiles are Mates” indicate a common Omegaverse practice noted by Milena Popova, which relies on a “life-long psychic bond with a partner.”8 In Teen Wolf, this OTP (One True Pairing) is most common between the characters Derek and Stiles. The visualization above allows viewers to confirm at a glance many of these important elements in the Teen Wolf fics.

Continuing this analysis, the popularity of tags like “knotting” and “fluff” illustrates the coexistence of what’s often regarded as opposing poles in mpreg practices: erotic writing vs. domestic narratives. In order to better understand these coexistent tropes, I changed the bar graph above to a stacked bar graph (fig. 2), displaying the category divisions that make up each tag count. “Categories” on AO3 refer to the intended audiences of fanfics.9 What I found is that tagging practices in this fandom transgress the boundaries that I initially expected: “fluff” is a tag frequently used in fics labeled for “Mature” and “Explicit” audiences, for example, while “smut” and “knotting” are used multiple times in fics intended for “Teens and Up.”

Fig. 2: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics with categories identified (click to take a closer look)

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So what do these visualizations tell us about methodology? In her “Introduction: Data Visualization and the Humanities,” Elyse Graham identifies two main ways that data visualizations are used: explication and discovery.10 While she goes on to say that this earlier use is more prevalent, I’ve shown how both methods can occur simultaneously in the visualizations above. Not only was I able to quickly indicate for those new to mpreg what the main themes of the genre are, I also came to the realization that the binaristic division I’d been imposing on mpreg was, in fact, blurred by the writers of these fics.

Lastly, Graham notes that one benefit of using data visualizations “is the practice of inquiring into its own conditions, even if doing so sometimes makes the discussion cautionary rather than celebratory” (9). While agreeing with her call to use data visualization methods for reflective purposes, I can’t help but be excited regarding the new questions that emerge with new distance reading methods.

Certainly, data visualizations look very little like our traditional ways of reading. But as N. Katherine Hayles points out in How We Think, there are more ways to read than one. And learning how to read in these new ways can be an enriching practice for all.

Footnotes:

1   Burdick, Anne et al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press, 2016, p. 39.

2   While I identify mpreg as a trope here; it’s also frequently referred to as both a genre and a fetish.

3   Klink, Flourish, and Elizabeth Minkel. “Five Tropes Fanfic Readers Love (And One They Hate).” Fansplaining, 27 Oct. 2016, https://www.fansplaining.com/articles/five-tropes-fanfic-readers-love-and-one-they-hate.

4   Shrayber, Mark. “What Exactly Is Mpreg? A Male Pregnancy Enthusiast Explains.” Jezebel, 3 Nov. 2014, https://jezebel.com/what-exactly-is-mpreg-a-male-pregnancy-enthusiast-expl-1651553874.

5   These numbers reflect a search conducted on October 14, 2019.

6   “Tagging” in fan communities refers to the practice of adding metadata to and “imposing order” on fanfics so that they can be more readily found by the readers searching for these terms. 

McCulloch, Gretchen. “Fans Are Better Than Tech at Organizing Information Online.” Wired, June 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/archive-of-our-own-fans-better-than-tech-organizing-information/.

7   This list has removed “mpreg,” which appeared far more often than any of the other tags and thus skewed the rest of the graph.

8   Popova, Milena. “‘Dogfuck Rapeworld’: Omegaverse Fanfiction as a Critical Tool in Analyzing the Impact of Social Power Structures on Intimate Relationships and Sexual Consent.” Porn Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 175–91, p. 7.

9   AO3 allows fic writers to categorize their works by their intended audiences: general, teen and up, mature, or explicit. Those fics that aren’t categorized as one of these four options are automatically labelled “not rated.”

10  Graham, Elyse. “Introduction: Data Visualisation and the Humanities.” English Studies, vol. 98, no. 5, 2017, pp. 449-458, p. 2.