Summer Reading, Part III: Books Bring History Up Close and Personal

Twentieth-century history plays a prominent role in the summer reading suggestions from two University of Virginia professors, Kay Neeley and Deborah McDowell.

McDowell, an English professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, recommends Zora Neale Hurston's novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Hurston became the most significant and acclaimed black female writer in the first half of the 20th century, during the artistic blossoming in the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. She died penniless in 1960, however, her fame turning to obscurity.

Although her books were out of print, women in colleges and other groups in the '70s found old copies and passed them around. McDowell was in graduate school at the time and studied Hurston for her dissertation.

"At that time in institutions of higher learning, no one was reading novels or any other literature by black American women," she said. "Thanks largely to Alice Walker, we were reintroduced to this phenomenal figure – anthropologist, folklorist, novelist, playwright. She was a polymath.

"We are now teaching this, perhaps her most popular book – certainly the most legendary book – in colleges and universities around the world."

First published in 1937, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" turns 75 this year. The Woodson Institute is planning a celebration on Sept. 18, to include a panel discussion. 

"To be able to celebrate it with our students and colleagues here is a wonderful thing," McDowell said.

Whereas Hurston's book represents McDowell's "scholarly coming of age," the other book she suggests influenced her political coming of age, she said. Robert A. Caro's "The Passage of Power" is the fourth volume of his biography of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and spans the years 1958 to '64.

"When I think about the issues that punctuate my life during that time, they would include voting," McDowell said. "I still recall, if you can believe, my mother having to pay a poll tax to vote. And I remember the Sunday afternoons after church in my grandmother's living room where she hosted members of the Bessemer Voters League – Bessemer, Alabama."

She said she admires Johnson's decisive leadership in pushing through civil rights legislation, despite his human flaws. Caro is a thorough researcher and a spellbinding writer, skilled in portraying human character, she said, and she found his portrayal of LBJ well balanced.

Kathryn "Kay" Neeley, professor of science, technology and society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's newly renamed Department of Engineering and Society, likes historic fiction, she said. She recommends "Fire in Beulah" by Rilla Askew, which focuses on people involved in a racial tragedy in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.

"The black section of Tulsa, which was populated by very prosperous people, was completely destroyed by fire. Thousands of people who lived there were murdered. It's been largely obscured in the historical record," Neeley said. "A lot of the content of the book is disturbing. It's brutal at times."

She wondered how the author would choose to retell such a horrifying event, she said, and then she realized the story might help readers understand how something like this could have happened.

"I think that the story of this book reminds us of the deep roots of a lot of the convictions that we have about why racial prejudice is such a huge ethical and social problem, and the book puts us in touch with the experiences that originally led people to those conclusions," Neeley said. "I think, in that sense, the reminder is a really healthy one, if not a happy one."

Neeley described Askew as "a female Faulkner."

"The similarity is that she is able to evoke in a vivid, articulate, authentic way a world that most of us have no access to, and to really accomplish what I think one of the great functions of literature has been from way back, which is to be a form of virtual reality – to take us into another domain of experience altogether."

Neeley also suggests a nonfiction title that goes through a long path of history in discussing forms and instruments of communication: "Hamlet's Blackberry," by William Powers, subtitled "A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age."

Powers deals with challenges and opportunities that people have faced since the beginning of civilization.

"The title refers to a scene in the play, 'Hamlet,' where he realizes there is a new technology called a 'table' – a kind of notebook that contains reusable paper – that will help him manage the complexity of his life," Neeley explained.

As long as there's been written language, people have realized that new technologies of recording our thoughts and communicating them have played complicated roles in our lives, she said. "What we face with digital technologies is in some ways no different than what people faced with the development of the written book or of written language to begin with."

Neeley described an experiment Powers and his family tried that shows how people can manage their use of the technology without being overwhelmed by it: They decided to unplug on the weekends and called it an "Internet Sabbath," after the Jewish custom to refrain from certain activities on the Sabbath.

"They found it changed their lives in really positive ways," Neeley said.

– by Anne Bromley