Weekly Wanderings: Nittany Lions Edition

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▪ I spent last Tuesday and Wednesday visiting Penn State, where history professors David Atwill and Kate Merkel-Hess (a fellow UCI History graduate) had invited me to talk with their grad students about getting a PhD and then going into a non-academic career. I also gave a presentation on the Zhang Leping biography that I’ve been working on for years and am determined to finish in 2017. I was really impressed by how many students showed up for both talks—about 15 or 20 for each—and also by the very thoughtful questions everyone asked.

It was a short trip, but magically went off without a hitch from start to finish—I even managed to wake up at 3:00am on Tuesday to make it to Detroit in time for a 6:30 flight to Philadelphia, which was the part I was most convinced I would screw up. (I’m a morning person, but not quite that much of a morning person.) The weather was unusually perfect (sunny and in the 80s), I had a succession of great meals that included Penn State specialties (ice cream from the school’s on-site Creamery after dinner, grilled sticky buns with breakfast), and preparing my talks gave me a nice opportunity to organize some thoughts about the two sides of my professional life (non-academic worker and historian/writer). Many thanks to David and Kate for inviting me and making my trip to Happy Valley so … happy.

▪ Who else watched Hamilton’s America on Friday night? Hamil-Pooh and I poured a thematically appropriate beverage and joined 18,000 other viewers on the Facebook Live stream. I saw one pre-release review that described the film as a 90-minute commercial for Hamilton, rather than a true documentary about Alexander Hamilton and Hamilton. And, well … yes, that’s pretty accurate. However, as someone who really enjoys the Hamilton soundtrack but hasn’t seen the musical itself, I have no complaints about getting a partial sneak preview. It was also interesting to see how thoroughly the actors have researched their real-life counterparts and grappled with their lives and actions (Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, was particularly eloquent on this issue). Also fun that the breakout star of the documentary is a history professor—Yale’s Joanne Freeman—who stole the show with her declaration that Alexander Hamilton “was an arrogant, irritating asshole.”

▪ Plus, during the whole week leading up to the documentary there was an explosion of articles about Hamilton, Hamilton, history, and other stuff that I geek out on. Three pieces that I especially liked:

  • Ann Little/@Historiann on the role that sex scandals and humiliated wives have played in politics from the founding of the country all the way through to the current presidential campaign.
  • David M. Perry/@Lollardfish in the Washington Post explaining how his non-verbal son has found a way to communicate and connect with others through the Hamilton soundtrack.
  • New York, of course, is “the greatest city in the world” according to Hamilton, and most of the show’s major events take place there. But Philadelphia, always plagued by an inferiority complex, would like to remind people that it too was an important metropolis in Hamilton’s day and the site of many significant events in his life. There’s now an app to guide visitors on a walking tour of Alexander Hamilton’s Philadelphia, including the approximate location of the house where his mistress Maria Reynolds lived, and the First Bank of the United States, the institution Hamilton pushes for as he matches raps with Thomas Jefferson in “Cabinet Battle No. 1” and then wheels and deals over dinner in “The Room Where It Happens.” 

▪ As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I stalk my local library’s “Up for Grabs” shelf, which enables you to jump the waitlist for really popular books. I got lucky on Friday when I stopped by to pick up a book I’d had on hold and found J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy* up for grabs. I may have whooped a bit under my breath as I snapped it up; given that I’m currently #139 on the regular waitlist, it was going to be a really long time before a copy landed in my hands. I’ve read about a third of the book so far, and although I don’t agree with a lot of Vance’s political statements, he’s an excellent writer.

▪ Shanghaiist recently posted “Shanghai Forever,” a short film that takes the viewer on a somewhat vertiginous journey through the city. I loved it: I can almost hear and feel and smell the different locations in Shanghai as the camera zooms through them. If you’re a Shanghai fan, it’s definitely worth taking three minutes to watch this fun little film.

* Amazon Associates link. If you make a purchase via this link, I will receive a small commission from Amazon. Thanks for your support! ~Maura

One thought on “Weekly Wanderings: Nittany Lions Edition

  1. Thanks for the link! And thanks, too, for directing me to David Perry’s article. It reminds me of the Suskind family whose son with autism learned to communicate through Disney movies–http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/reaching-my-autistic-son-through-disney.html?_r=0

    And congrats on the talk at Penn State. Grad students seem extremely curious about alt-ac these days, so I’m glad there are programs that welcome speakers to campus to discuss it. Good luck with your book!

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