DANCING IN THE STREETS: A History of Collective Joy

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. $26.

Reviewed by C.  Bertelsen

“Dancing in the Streets” is, frankly, a brilliant book. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of “Nickel and Dimed,” “Blood Rites,” and other journalistic commentaries on human society, is not an academic, although she documents everything as would an academic. Nevertheless, some readers might quibble over this omission or that in this highly readable and multilayered book. But the truth is that Ehrenreich probes a hollow place in contemporary society and comes up with some intriguing explanations about why we are who we are today. By synthesizing a large number of seemingly disparate ideas and sources, she speaks with authority about the increasing absence of collective joy in Western society, tracing the loss of what appears to be a basic human need.

Using a chronological framework, Ehrenreich moves through western history, beginning with the prehistoric roots of archaic ecstasy, passing through the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, Puritanism and its associated military reform, colonialism, fascism, the rock rebellion of the 1960s, and ending with the modern-day frenzy surrounding sports. Along the way, she touches on the oppression of women and ancient female-generated dance and worship.

Ehrenreich starts by examining the ecstatic ritual surrounding the worship of the Greek god, Dionysius, and the impact of that ritual on the everyday lives of the ancient Greeks. Hinting that early Christian rites bore no resemblance to today’s staid “sit-down” Christian worship services and that dancing played a role in those rituals, similar to Greek and Jewish practice, she proposes a number of credible reasons for the gradual decline of communal joy and festivities in the West and in areas colonized by Westerners.

One of the paramount reasons for this decline lies with the early Roman Catholic Church cracking down on sacred dance, which likely took place within the worship space. Dancing and festivals thus moved from the worship space to the streets. In the beginning, both noble elites and their vassals and peasants all celebrated feasts days and other events communally. But as time went on, the elite and the powerful found the raucous behavior associated with the festivals, particularly in the Lord of Misrule traditions and the antagonistic jokes made by the peasants about the nobility, to be disturbing enough to begin withdrawing from the public celebrations. More and more, the nobility and powerful Church authorities attempted to control these festivals that occurred with regularity through the year—one out of every four days during the Middle Ages was an official religious feast day or holiday of some sort. Carnival became a primary target for such control.

In another fascinating discussion, Ehrenreich shows how Puritanism helped to squelch the Carnivalesque behavior of the common soldier. Prior to the introduction of Calvinism, soldiers spent a lot of time sitting around, drinking and carousing. The seventeenth-century English soldier and politician, Oliver Cromwell, changed all that by demanding constant drilling and other tasks that left soldiers little time for anything untoward and undisciplined. The military of today reflects those changes.

Calvinism affected society in other ways as well. The number of suicides in the Swiss canton of Zurich increased sharply in the sixteenth century, just as Calvinism took hold. Prior to the sixteenth century, few remarks about depression turned up in historical records. Claiming that suicide is a sure marker for depression, the author documents these conclusions well and suggests that communal ecstatic ritual and festivities may well have acted as a cure for depression over the ages.

The signs of yearning for collective joy appear everywhere in our modern, individualistic society, but manifest themselves most vividly with the extreme preoccupation with sports. College football fans in particular represent a concrete example of Ehrenreich’s basic theory. With body painting, chants and songs, outlandish costumes and masks, and even just T-shirts in school colors, any American college town in autumn revels in a spectacle that could very well have transpired during Carnival week in the Middle Ages. And that’s the thing—society today is a “society of the spectacle,” of passive observance of organized activity.

If the book sports any defect, it lies with sporadic ponderous wordspeak and occasional convoluted sentence structure.

“Dancing in the Streets” is brilliant, profound, disturbing, exhilarating, and revolutionary. If nothing else, it will cause you to look differently at the sports fans in your life.

© 2008, originalyl published in The Roanoke Times.



secret-life-of-words1By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 440 pages. $27.00

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

In “The Secret Life of Words,” British author Henry Hitchings joins Bill Bryson (“The Mother Tongue”), Melvyn Bragg (“The Adventures of English”), and Robert McCrum (“The Story of English”) in seeking the bloodline of English, a language spoken by an estimated 350 million native speakers, and many others speaking it as a second language. To study the history of English is to delve into the history of the world and cultures grazed by political and economic power. And Hitchings’s version of the history of English renders a spellbinding story, full of all the drama of a well-orchestrated film or a gripping who-dunnit.

Hard as it is to believe that a linguistically prone book could hold a reader’s attention like a murder mystery, in this case it’s true. Every page reflects the “borrowing” of “loan words.” (Hitchings quips that English doesn’t really “borrow” words, because they’ll never be given back!) And the stories and reasons behind those words slipping into the English lexicon sometimes read like “The Arabian Nights” or G. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series.

Take food words. Because of trade during the Middle Ages, words practically leapt into the fledgling English language. Hitchings thrills to the musicality of Arabic words, “Arabic words for foodstuffs, alluringly simple, also gained currency. “Naranj” was the Sanskrit word for the citrus tree and its glowing fruit; in Arabic, it kept this form, but in English ‘a naranj’ soon mutated into ‘an orange.’ Other names of fruits and vegetables include lime (‘limah’), endive (‘hindab’), artichoke (‘al-kharshuf’), which was introduced to England in the reign of Henry VIII, and possibly spinach (which may ultimately have been derived from the Arabic ‘isfanaj’.” Nearly every the page finds this or that food word being added as people discovered each others’ cooking.

Sea-faring words, law and legal words, war words, farming words – Hitchings incorporates them all, and more. He shows how the English language mirrors the numerous bitter conflicts between France and English, the rivalry between Native Americans and American settlers, and the nuances of British colonialism in the Far East, how clashes of cultures create new words and encourage adoption of others.

Hitchings ends this delightful book with an excellent ‘if-you-want-to-read-more” bibliography and a seventeen-page special “Index of Words and Terms” scrutinized in the text. If history and love of language float your boat, “The Secret History of Words” will set you schooning through this remarkable story of an increasingly global language, ever-morphing into something new. As Hitchings concludes, “As long as there are groups on the move, languages will change. Such groups at present include migrant labourers, students, troops and aid workers, refugees, tourists and businesspeople. Think, for a moment of their influence: the ideas they propagate, the pleasures they share, the drama they witness, the opportunities they create exploit or implore.”

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Publlished in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 16, 2008.

HOUSE OF WITS: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

By Paul Fisher

Henry Holt and Company. 694 pages. $35.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Recent studies indicate that parents, consciously or unconsciously, often tend to allocate more economic resources to one or two children in the family. And this generally predisposes those favored children to success.

Paul Fisher, professor of American literature at Wellesley College, illustrates this mode of parenting in his thought-provoking and well-written biography of the James family. Not the infamous James gang, but the family of William James, the famed nineteenth-century psychologist and his brother, the prolific writer and novelist Henry James, who wrote such classics as Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and Wings of the Dove, as well as The Bostonians, Portrait of a Lady, and other novels still in print.

This meaty tome also includes the other members of the family: alcoholic father Henry James, Sr. striding his world on one leg, mother Mary Walsh James, and the peripheral siblings-ner’do well brothers Wilkie and Bob, and perennial invalid sister, Alice. Fisher’s biography of the entire family isn’t the first attempt to dissect this remarkable group of American intellectuals-that honor goes to F. O. Matthiessen’s The James Family (1947). Nevertheless, the pathology and dysfunction that formed these children reveal a fascinating theme, and that is where Fisher’s work is unique. He explores this theme so thoroughly that the characters live again in all their palpable pain. At times Fisher appears to attribute feelings to the James family members, suggesting that he might be reading a bit too imaginatively between the lines of their voluminous letters and writings. The House of Wits could have been titled Portrait of a Family, parodying Henry James’s novel Portrait of Lady!

The stifling atmosphere of a normal upper-middle-class Victorian childhood, compounded by father Henry James, Sr.’s delusions of grandiosity and depressions-due in part to his own father’s neglect of him and the fire that cost him his leg as an adolescent, created tremendous challenges for all five James children as they sought to individuate themselves from their loving, but controlling, parents. At one point, their father enrolled and withdrew the children from ten different schools in New York City alone. Then he dragged them to Europe for years on end. Most of the time the parents homeschooled the children, who remained socially isolated. Their father encouraged the two oldest boys, particularly William, but the younger children, Wilkie, Bob, and Alice spent their lives seeking the approval and love they felt they never received. Depressions, breakdowns, puzzling illnesses, conflicted sexuality, alcoholism, and escapes to Europe resulted as the James children grew up. In spite of that, William and especially Henry finally found their niches.

Of all of the five James children, Alice is the most tragically drawn. As a brilliant woman, she contended with the Victorian ideal of womanhood, useless and ornamental. Alice’s own father expounded at length on the inferiority of women’s intellect in his writing and in the public lectures he gave over the years. Yet modern-day scholars consider Alice James’s diary a masterpiece, written before she died of breast cancer at age forty-three. She claimed that Henry borrowed her “pearls,” or ideas, and used them to write his novels.

The House of Wits offers a rewarding and fascinating read for those enamored of American political, social, and economic history, not just literary history.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen