Exhibitions at the Eric Carle Museum and at Mt. Holyoke

Western Mass Art: Catch it Now!

It's Me Eloise: The Voice of Kay Thompson and the Art of Hilary Knight
Eric Carle Museum (Amherst)
Through June 4, 2017

140 Unlimited
Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (South Hadley)
Through May 28, 2018 (and beyond) 


I did not grow up with Eloise, the slightly naughty, slightly precocious, and the exceedingly privileged little girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel with rich parents that mostly fobbed her off on her nanny. I intend no sexism when I say that Eloise books weren't exactly normal fare for little boys back in the days when I was one. All of what I know about the franchise is secondhand via my wife and it was of the variety that nearly made me opt out of a visit to the Eric Carle Museum. I'm glad I didn't.

The current exhibit is a totally charming display of book graphics, story mockups, magazine covers, and spinoffs covering the years 1947 to the present. The first date surprised me, as the first Eloise book didn't appear until 1954. I was unaware that Thompson was already a radio star before she began authoring children's books devoted to her diminutive heroine. Nor did I know that the Eloise books evolved from a radio persona she assumed in 1947. Think something akin to Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann character. The Eric Carle Museum has several headphones stations where we can hear Thompson portraying Eloise on the air, as well as a middle-of-the-room section devoted to Eloise on radio, records, and stage.

The outside walls of the gallery are devoted to photos, text panels, and artwork. We learn first about Thompson, who lived in the Plaza for much of starlet days and had a stubborn streak of her own. I simply had no idea of her days as a singer on Bing Crosby radio shows in the 1930s, or of her Broadway and movie work. We also learn of Hilary Knight to whom I had previously paid so little attention that I failed to note the single L in the first name and assumed to be a woman. But Eloise is the star of the exhibit—in all of her various franchise turns—books, recordings, TV shows, musicals, toys, games, and assorted paraphernalia—that outlived her creators. Yes, she is a snooty little toff, but her spunk and insouciance are enough to melt the class barriers of a Maoist. So too are the hilarious predicaments in which she embroils herself. It's easy to understand her appeal to spirited little girls. Take one with you if you can but if not, go anyhow. All you need is a young attitude; It's Me Eloise is for kids young and old. 


Addario, Two Burqas
The Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (MHCMA) recently celebrated its 140th birthday. Years before that event, college curators had the inspired idea to collect 140 new objects to display during the birthday bash. The MHCMA, though not a pauper, lacks the sizable endowments that periodically refresh the galleries of Smith, Yale, Harvard, or Amherst. In practical terms this meant the MHCMA had to collect smart, cultivate donors, and work closely with faculty to discuss topics such as inclusiveness, worthiness, and usefulness of items as future teaching tools. Try doing all of that on a limited budget. The result is quite impressive.

One way to keep costs in line is to buy photographs. I'm not wild about the minor Joel Meyerowitz offerings, but there are stunning shots by others, especially work done by shutterbugs such as Lynsey Addario and Pieter Hugo in Africa, and by Livia Corona in Mexico. Check out the story behind Addario's shot titled "Two Burqas;" it's too good for a spoiler.    

Andy Warhol
The rest of the objects are a delicious Mulligan stew that includes works from Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, a mesmerizing Mannerist painting of Judith and Holofernes by Benton Spurance, and known and lesser-known Old Masters. There also objects ranging from Classical antiquities and African masks to an Asian Buddha and Pueblo ceramics. The overall effect is more like sorting through the backroom of an art auction house than the stiff formalism of a museum.

As an integrated group this exhibit closes in a few short weeks, but the MHCMA now owns these items and many are sure to become longtime favorites.

Rob Weir

Benton Spurance
Chuck Close
Pueblo Ceramic


Kent State : A Survivor's Insightful Analysis

Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties. By Thomas M. Grace. University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 273 pages + appendices, notes, index.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio.

Those lines from Neil Young’s “Ohio” were inescapable by the summer of 1970, with Young’s pained voice and blistering guitar presaging those of punk and grunge. Anger was already in the air, but the May 4, 1970 shooting of thirteen Kent State University students brought home that rage for multitudes of Americans. By summer’s end, Kent State had become the symbol of divisiveness that roils American society to the present day. Those on the left seized upon Kent as further confirmation that the American Establishment was controlled by duplicitous liars with murderous intent—those willing to expand an immoral war (Vietnam) into neighboring Cambodia and also ready to mow down anyone, including college students, with the audacity to challenge their authority. To those on the right, Kent State was a long overdue crackdown on lawless degenerates who sought to rent the very fabric of American society.

If the two camps shared anything in common, it was their surprise that matters came to a head at Kent State. Until May 4, most Americans had no idea where Kent State was even located. Those such as this reviewer who are old enough to remember the 1970 shootings at Kent (and also Jackson State, Mississippi) recall that most coverage presented Kent State as something of a backwater—the term “small second-tier state school” was often used. Why there? Kent, the media asserted, had not been an epicenter of campus dissent like UCal Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Columbia, San Francisco State, or the University of Wisconsin. 

This was because too few were paying attention. So says Thomas Grace and he would know—he was at Kent and was among the nine students wounded on May 4.  Kent, Ohio was a small city of just over 28,000 in 1970, but it was no backwater—it was/is an outlying section of Akron and part of the Greater Cleveland metropolitan region. In one of the book’s many remarkable features, Grace has meticulously researched the backgrounds of Kent students and can definitively say that though the university had grown like Topsy—from 6,000 students in 1955 to over 21,000 at the time of the shootings—its undergraduates were not the sons and daughters of farmers; they were the children of blue-collar workers. Many were first-generation college attendees and some were students of color whose entrance into higher education was uneasy. 

Grace deftly employs the concept of the Long Sixties to prove that the events of 1970 were neither unique nor unpredictable. Ohio—as election observers know—has long been a divided state. In 1970, conservative Republican James Rhodes was governor, but Kent’s students hailed mostly from parts of the state where labor unions had fought and won hard battles. In 1966, the largely black Hough section of Cleveland exploded into six days of rioting that destroyed millions of dollars worth of property. Four (ahem!) people died and fifty were wounded. Those who landed on the Kent campus during the 1960s were neither naïve nor quiescent. The campus saw its first major protest in 1961 and by the mid-Sixties Kent was a spider web of Old and New Left organizations: socialists, Trotskyites, civil rights advocates, SDS members, black nationalists, antiwar activists…. Moreover, ten percent of Kent students were Vietnam veterans, many of whom were outraged by Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Though several of those shot at Kent were not actively protesting, most of those chanting for the National Guard’s exit from their campus knew why they were protesting and were experienced at doing so. As Grace says of himself, “I was not a victim; I was a casualty.”

Grace’s book is so filled with individual stories that one is sometimes lost in the welter of unfamiliar names, but some clear villains emerge: Governor Rhodes, parts of the KSU administration, Ohioans applauding the suppression of civil liberties, the Ohio National Guard, and court systems that literally allowed the Guard to get away with murder. But Grace leaves us with some of his namesake vibes. In a final sweep, his appendix traces the post-May 4 lives of protestors. They did not slink away, as those hoping to teach them a lesson had hoped. Most were activists before 1970 and remained so afterward. Grace, who hails from Buffalo, returned to campus after a long rehab to show he belonged. Until retirement, he was a social worker, union organizer, and part of the May 4 Memorial task force. Then he got a Ph.D. and is now a history instructor at Erie Community College. He insists there is nothing special about his story—his prerogative, but his book is extraordinary.

What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How could you run when you know?

Rob Weir  

Note: This review originally appeared on" http://nepca.wordpress.com 


Has the U.S. Reckoned with Vietnam?

American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. By Christian G. Appy, Penguin, 2016, 335 pp. plus notes, bibliography, index. 

Note: Saigon fell to advancing South Vietnamese troops 42 years ago yesterday. This review originally appeared at: https://nepca.blog/ 

Nations seldom exit wars as they entered them. In an important new book, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Chris Appy argues that, though the Vietnam War ended thirty-two years ago, the United States continues to struggle with its results. He even asserts that with "the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U.S. history has demanded more soul-searching than the war in Vietnam," a conflict that "provoked a profound national identity crisis, an American reckoning" (x). A short list of its impact includes the shattering of "the central tenet of American national identity–the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life" (xi-xii).  

Few scholars have a better grasp of Vietnam and the workings of the military-industrial complex than Appy. He mines an array of primary sources in this study, but he also understands that popular culture frequently embodies a better understanding of how Americans see their past. Hence, Appy also draws upon movies, advertisements, novels, music, and other such sources in a book that begins with the question, "Who Are We?" and ends with observations of "Who We Are." The book is divided into three sections: "Why Are We In Vietnam?", "America at War," and "What Have We Become?".  An example of Appy's unorthodox but deeply enlightening approach comes in a chapter titled "Saving Vietnam." It builds upon Deliver Us From Evil, a 1956 best-selling book from Thomas A. Dooley, which Appy uses to show the deep roots of U.S. misunderstanding of Vietnam, and to place under the microscope Americans' self-deceptions. This journey takes Apply into the geopolitics of post-World War II, as well as into the sermons of Fulton Sheen, Cecil B. DeMille's rants on "godless communism," the exceptionalist pronouncements of Henry Luce, and the naïveté of films like South Pacific.

Students of the war won't find much new in what Appy relates about the illogic of American reasons for entering Vietnam or the inappropriateness of how the war was conducted. His revelations lie in his innovative narrative and in the depth of how various missteps continue to impact society. For example, in his look at American soldiers ("Our Boys") he sets the stage for understanding the gap between admiration for U.S. warriors and rejection of their cause. It's hard to find common ground between —on one hand, the film The Green Berets, Barry Sadler's hyper-patriotic ballad of that title, and Merle Haggard's middle finger to the counterculture and — on the other hand —revelations of My Lai, the rise of the antiwar movement, former Green Beret Donald Duncan's excoriation of the American way of war, and the spate of songs and movies critical of the conflict and those who conducted it.

In his final section, Appy turns his capacious mind to Vietnam's impact. Among its effects is the "Victim Nation" (221-49), a simultaneous sense that American ideals have always been under attack, "willful amnesia" (224) concerning Vietnam, a loss of faith in American institutions, a reconfiguration of GIs as "the primary victims" of the war (241), and a contradictory go-it-alone attitude as seen in films such as Rambo.

Conservatives from Ronald Reagan on have fanned post-Vietnam disillusionment and disunity to argue for a reinvigoration of American supremacy. Indeed, though Appy's book went to press before the 2016 election, it's easy to cast Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan in this light. But Appy incisively captures the problem facing the sloganeering of both right and left in his chapter "No More Vietnams." As he captures it in vignettes, such bromides can justify both the 1983 mass force invasion of Grenada and the antiwar activism of Brian Willson four years later.  

Appy ends his book with bleak notes and a clarion call. He sees Vietnam in the war in Iraq, noting that it took President Obama three years "to find an exit" for a "war that began in March 2003 with 'shock and awe' [and] ended almost nine years later in head-shaking silence" (305). 9/11 brought back American exceptionalism, even support for the idea of empire. These took their place aside new contradictions: the national security state and attempts to manage the news versus leaked revelations of misconduct such as that of David Petraeus and troops at Abu Ghraib; the valorization of Pat Tillman versus a lack of public support for the mission in Iraq; and belief in "global hegemony" versus critiques on the right and left that see it as "expensive, destructive, and antithetical to republican institutions" (319). By 2009, a scant 24% of Americans saw any value in the Iraqi conflict. Shades of Vietnam indeed! But how does one reconcile this with a 2010 poll in which 80% affirmed that the USA has a responsibility to lead the world? You don't. In Appy's words, "As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power…." Our best hope is to "seek a fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened…. It is our record; it is who we are" (335).

Rob Weir