Category Archives: Shelf Life

The Godmother of Rock and Roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in New York’s Café Society in 1940. (Image by Charles Peterson; courtesy Don Peterson)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in New York’s Café Society in 1940.
(Image by Charles Peterson; courtesy Don Peterson via American Masters)

Before there was Bill Haley, rocking around the clock, before there was Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and tearing it up on the guitar, before there were the Beatles and their lyrics and their haircuts—before there was rock and roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

If that name isn’t familiar to you, you’re not alone, said GW Professor of English Gayle Wald, author of the 2007 book Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Ms. Tharpe, an African American gospel musician, became one of gospel music’s biggest stars and most celebrated guitarists, and inspired a diverse set of musicians who followed her. But because she enjoyed none of the privileges of white male musicians, she has remained relatively unknown to modern audiences despite the commercial success of her recordings. Now Ms. Tharpe, who died in 1973, is the subject of a documentary film based on Dr. Wald’s book that will air on PBS’s “American Masters” on Friday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

“[Rosetta Tharpe] wasn’t quite marginalized, but she was kind of ironically shut out,” Dr. Wald explained. “Like a lot of early influences, she was there at the very moment rock and roll emerged.”

(Continue reading the story by Laura Donnelly-Smith at GW Today)

Into the Lives of Objects: New book explores the lure and actions of ‘things’

English professor Jeffrey Cohen sits behind the long-dead cephalopod that maintains an uncanny lure. “[T]here’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said. (Photo by William Atkins)

Not far from the fake palm tree on Jeffrey Cohen’s desk sits a fist-sized fossil that visitors can’t seem to keep their hands off of.

The intricately coiled, shelled creature made the journey from flesh-and-blood to cold stone tens of millions of years ago, if not hundreds of millions. Life is long gone. And yet still the fossil calls out to people.

“This seems to be an irresistible thing on my desk,” said Dr. Cohen, an English professor, as he handled the ancient cephalopod.

“As dead as it is, as inert as it is—it’s just a piece of rock; it was once alive but now it’s just stone—there’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said.

That curious lure of an object, and the roles objects play in our lives as foils or companions or containers of sentiment is the subject of a new collection of essays curated and edited by Dr. Cohen, called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects.

“Though their power sometimes becomes most evident just at the moment of a human touch, [objects] possess an uncanny agency all their own,” Dr. Cohen writes in the book’s introduction. Citing examples from a 14th century Icelandic saga, he writes: “Fire, ice, and water are actors in the text: they consume, convey, renew, destroy.”
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Shelf Life: The Cast Behind the Watergate Scandal

Tom Mallon's new book, Watergate, will be released February 21.
(Photo by Jessica McConnell Burt)

It isn’t often historical fiction writers meet their subjects.

But in 1968, on the Hempstead Turnpike in Long Island, a 16-year-old Thomas Mallon shook hands with then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, whose involvement in the nation’s most infamous political scandal is the subject of Dr. Mallon’s latest book.

Watergate, to be released next week by Pantheon, follows seven real figures during the Watergate era—including Fred LaRue, a Nixon presidential aide who was in charge of delivering payment to the burglars, and Alice Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and longtime friend of Nixon—providing their perspectives as the scandal unfolds.

This book was four years in the making for Dr. Mallon, whose Foggy Bottom residence looks right at the Watergate complex, where five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972.

“I think the subject, even 40 years later, still tantalizes and interests people,” said Dr. Mallon, a professor of English at GW. “Nixon has such a combination of the good and the bad, with both his accomplishments and his ‘dastardly deeds.’”

His eighth novel, Watergate has already received extensive recognition, including placement on Newsweek’s “12 for 2012” and O Magazine’s “17 Books to Watch for in February.”

“The Watergate, which Nixon claimed never to have been in, figured more in the story than I thought,” said Dr. Mallon. “The book goes in and out of the complex a lot … and I hadn’t imagined that at first. I just thought of it as a place where the burglaries took place.”

Dr. Mallon said he was drawn to Nixon in part because the infamous president was “such an enormous figure” in his own life. Dr. Mallon was an undergraduate at Brown University when Nixon was president, and his own father was a “passionate supporter” of the man.

“Nixon was certainly one of the people who shaped the world that we live in, and he was a brilliant man who was so tangled up in his personality that he couldn’t help himself,” said Dr. Mallon. “There were times when his rational capacities—which were considerable—and his analytical capacities—which were great—were overruled by these dark impulses he had.”

(Continue reading the story by GW Today’s Julia Parmley.)

Shelf Life: Anything You Can Do …

Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like a little friendly competition. But when a little friendly competition turns into a fierce rivalry, it can either lead to heightened performance or spiral into petty one-upmanship. And sometimes, as it did in the case of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, it can result in a little of both.

Dr. Fruscione's Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry, was published last month by Ohio State University Press.

In his first book, Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry (Ohio State University Press, 2012), GW alumnus and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Writing Joseph Fruscione, PhD ‘05, chronicles the rivalry between Faulkner and Hemingway, two of the great American authors of the 20th century. For decades, the two challenged and influenced each other through barbs and backhanded compliments—Hemingway, who was known for his machismo, once even (somewhat) jokingly challenged Faulkner to a duel.

Dr. Fruscione will be discussing the book next month at the Library of Congress (March 16, noon-1pm). In anticipation, we sat down with him to talk about the interplay between these famous modernists and the psychological factors at play in their contentious relationship.

Q: How did you become interested in these two writers?
I pretty much liked Faulkner from the beginning, when I read him as an undergraduate. The story The Old People—that was my first Faulkner. It sucked me in and I read a lot of his other work. Hemingway is a trickier one because I didn’t like his work in high school or as an undergraduate. It just felt too forced, too contrived.

But in graduate school here at GW, my first semester, I took a class about a few Midwestern modernist authors and I read Hemingway’s early book In Our Time. It was a confluence of the right text at the right time in my life. It resonated and pulled me in. And then I realized there’s a lot of depth in his writing, a lot of personality—flawed personality in many ways. He was a patently insecure writer. In a lot of his unpublished letters he’s very self-pitying. He talks about his writing struggles and that seems to fly in the face of the image of the tough, worldly, macho writer.
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