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After Charlottesville, local debates over the place of Confederate monuments in United States public places roared into the national spotlight. With a broad knowledge of the fields of study that have examined the history, policy, and cultural meanings of such monuments, University Press of Kansas Editor-in-Chief Joyce Harrison compiled for the Association a list of relevant university-press-published scholarship for us to share as part of the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum effort. There are many other deeply urgent aspects to what happened in Charlottesville on August 12, and several Association members have also compiled valuable resource lists under the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum tag. More can also be found in sections of the Books for Understanding: Race Relations in the US bibliography.

Compiled and introduced by Joyce Harrison

As more and more Confederate monuments and symbols are removed in US cities and towns, many people new to the issue have wondered why. Is it a bit extreme? Are we erasing history by removing them?

The books in this list were written by people who have spent their lives and careers studying how Americans remembered victory and defeat, how southerners honored the Confederate dead, and what monuments meant when they were built—and continue to mean—as our troubled past haunts us, over 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

University presses can help us understand and allow us to contribute to informed discussion and debate.

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After while supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, leading to violence and the tragic killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, many groups and individuals have used social media to point fellow citizens to books, articles, teaching resources, and other materials to help understand what is happening throughout the United States. The members of the Association of University Presses publish scholarship that helps all of us know and understand our history, our present, and our possible futures; and a number of member presses have contributed resource lists to the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and #CharlottesvilleSyllabus effort. Below are links to these reading lists.

If we’ve missed any #CharlottesvilleCurriculum posts by Association members, please email details to 

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Photo: Aaron A. Abeyta

Aaron A. Abeyta

The following letter was delivered as a keynote speech at the Association of American University Presses annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, June 2015.

A Letter to Pratt in Praise of Books

Dear Darrin,

I am writing in the evening light; the river birds have begun the last of their singing, sweet whistles, and rapid staccatos that are their language. I imagine they are asking one another for the very same things we might ask for, a lasting grace that is more than just their flight.

Antonito blooms in the cradle of three rivers, all of which give their names and their water to the Rio Grande west of town. A gorge of andesite rock, scored with petroglyphs, directs the river south through a rift that split the llano in two at the earth’s forming. The petroglyphs mark the passing of ancient civilizations; their crude renderings on the black stone are a lasting proof, a carved longing etched for us to interpret. Thermals rise from the gorge, and the river noise and the raptors make upon them a calligraphy of sound and flight that is like words at their genesis.

Further to the west, there is a storm tethered to the San Juans; the bruised sky does not descend east into the canyon cut by the Conejos and lined with cottonwoods. Today, for the first time in weeks, the river has green at her watery edges, the peak of runoff fading. The river is my home; it is what I return to, always my north and brightest star. It is the river that keeps my memories, each bend its own story. For all I know, it is this river of water and stone that is my soul. My friend Cristobal once fished here. This river does not belong to him, he of the fierce face, so angry or so afraid or so brave. This is the river where I saw him last, before the .22 slug to his right temple. The river has made it so that the final memories of many things and many ghosts can be washed clean, wet as water on stone, touched by every current; the river becomes this mirror that is both truth and the shimmer of the half remembered; slow, flat water, which heals and forgives. The river is what I try to save. I believe the river is better than all of us; it knows how we love, and it urges the broken parts of us healed, and that is why I am writing this letter; I believe books, language, and the perfect word hold that same power.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of what we are meant to do, what we are meant to change in the world. Are we meant to find the good stories, the most perfect word, to find the music of a line or sentence? We are seekers, and that is what we were made to do, to follow the rivers of our youth; linger at the deep pools of joy, pain, and regret; cast our hope to the answers beneath the water’s mirror, that reversal of aspect that allows us to see inside ourselves. We broker in what we see on a daily basis and also that which we imagine. We fuse the two constantly, alchemists that work at new meaning, new vision, new understanding. We must see differently; it is, perhaps, the only requirement of the job. Eliot called it prelogical thinking, and he claimed it was only available to and through poets. Shelley called the poet the hierophant of sacred mysteries, and Stevens, when speaking of the great blue and purple tabulae, said it “spoke the feeling for them, which is what they had lacked.” We must see reflected, there in the word, that which everyone else sees as human and tangible and then imagine it as sacrosanct and beautiful, no matter how ordinary, ugly, or foreign it may seem.

Do you believe, as I do, that we are here to save language and therefore the power of the written word? Yehuda Amichai described our modern voice as a “weary language, . . . a language that once described miracles and God.” That is why the books you publish are so important, so necessary—good books, long labors of words and thoughts that seek the sacred peace of a well-written line. It was books that saved me.

I come from a place where leaving has always been equated with success. Leaving is difficult at times; the ways out are marked with the glowing road signs of those that tried and failed. The fields at the edge of town are rigged with the land mines of doubt, failure, and fear. Leaving has never been easy. My only stated goal when I was young was to leave Antonito and never return. I would negotiate the land mines, ignore the roadside crosses and the scattered bones of the fallen.

I was never a horrible kid in school, though I think there are a few teachers that might disagree with my self-assessment; I do, however, remember being bored, tired of filling in blanks, tired of books that did not reflect me or my place. School was an oppressive force. Were it not for football and friendships I cannot say where my early path would have led. I remember the psychologist the district brought in, her battery of tests on me; the intended goal, I learned later, was to expel me. There were these mentions of reform school or military school. In short, I hated school, and then my freshman English teacher, literally, gave me a key one day. At the back of the room there was a locked cabinet whose contents were off-limits. She would constantly tell me, “Those books are for the seniors.” I am many things, but chief among them, I am persistent, to a fault. Finally, in what seemed like a moment of desperation, she told me, “Go ahead pick a book from back there if you promise to quit disrupting my class.” I was only too happy to oblige; if I never have to conjugate another sentence, I will be a happy man.

She handed over the small key, and I walked to the back of the room. I chose Capote’s In Cold Blood, and a new world was opened. Emily Dickinson says that every poem has its trapdoor that the reader must fall through. I fell into that book and knew, at that moment, that I would love books and their saving power for the rest of my life. I cannot remember my first kiss, but I remember Kenyon Clutter and the fact that he ate apples to keep his teeth clean and that he carried a sheep on his fifteen-year-old shoulders through a Kansas blizzard. He was not an important character in the book, but I was in awe of Capote, of those minor details and how much weight they carried. I knew then that books, and the conjuring they possessed, were the first true-feathered bird.

Perhaps we are all here to trace and collect words, to sow meaning; we collect that thing which people discard as ordinary and bring it to a page of life where it can flourish and be the map of human struggle and therefore an instruction as to how we can all survive.

I worry sometimes that my students are losing their ability to love or appreciate the inexhaustible strength of words and their power. I think they betray that which you and I would never betray, that thing which we give ourselves to like prayer. We call upon language to protect us, give us light, and there is a grace in what we chose to do, the books we give ourselves to, the hard-earned pages that lift us toward being whole. I think that there are others like us, a race of people who still love the eloquent transcendence of the exact word, the beautiful and sensuous hip of a perfectly rendered comma that can send any of us on a river journey toward interminable love.

We search the geologic layers of the human condition and we bring it to the page because that is our job, to record that which matters, the memory worth saving, the history worth telling, the woven words that form a music that has always been meant to save us. Sometimes we are called to save our fallen home and its forgotten places. Sometimes we are called upon to save the window in each of us, the portal mirror that allows us to interpret the sacred mysteries. What is language to you? How, perhaps, has it saved you? Is it, perhaps, like Li-Young Lee said about poetry, each poem is a “descendant of God.”

Language is my wife’s love of living and remembered things, language is my mother’s hands or my father’s tired back, language is my daughter’s smile, the medicine of it after I believed that parts of me were broken forever. Language is water that carries me simultaneously forward and into the past.

I am writing to you from the banks of the river; the storm never made it off the mountains; the birds are silent and there are so many stars out beyond the dark, swaying bodies of the cottonwoods. I strain for the notes of some sound against canyon walls, but there is only the steady thrum of river. Thank you for the work you do, for your dedication to good and important books, their magic and message, their language of liberation and hope. This letter is in praise of books, their limitless potential and their sacredness. I suppose, by association, this letter is also about friendship and about what is lost or can be lost. I hope to someday show you the Conejos, the river that is my home water. I will show you where I caught my first fish, point out the bend where I last saw my friend Cristobal and his stringer of fish. I will show you my hometown, how much it needs hope, how much it needs books like the ones you publish. We all need to see ourselves in words; each of us needs our history to be told and understood, and for your contribution to this end, I sincerely thank you.

I am writing to you from the banks of the Conejos River, and I am wishing you a good night. Perhaps you will dream of words and their origins, and in your dream they will begin to fly and work the dusk light of your memory, collecting in their beaks and in their winged flight the parts of your being that were you long ago, and the words will circle in the alpenglow to form the stories and poems that rise toward the growing night, toward stars, toward the timeless space between their origin and your dreaming them back to the page, forever and forever without cease.

Be well, my friend, and keep bringing us toward a place where the music of words is rendered with grace.



Logo: UP of Colorado

Reproduced courtesy of Aaron A. Abeyta and
University Press of Colorado.


Aaron A. Abeyta is a Colorado native and professor of English at Adams State University. He is the author of four collections of poetry and one novel. For his book Colcha, Abeyta received the American Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. In addition, his novel Rise, Do Not Be Afraid was a finalist for the 2007 Colorado Book Award and Premio Aztlan. Abeyta also was awarded a Colorado Council on the Arts fellowship for poetry, and he was recently named the Poet Laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope by the Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival.Book Cover: Colcha

Abeyta’s work has appeared in various publications, including An Introduction to Poetry, 10th edition; Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 8th edition; and Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture; Colorado Central Magazine; and High Country News.

Abeyta received his MFA from Colorado State University. He lives in Antonito, Colorado, where he remains close to his family and culture, both of which greatly influence his work.

Contact Aaron Abeyta

by Lorri Hagman, Executive Editor, University of Washington Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 1, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2000)
Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 2, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2007)
Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 3, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2009)

Book Cover: Stories Old and New

Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (ISBN: 9780295978444)

Some people spend thousands of dollars and endure hours of exhausting air travel to vacation in exotic places. But among the perks of my editorial job at the University of Washington Press in the summer of 1998 was being paid to boat down rivers and trek through mist-shrouded mountains in southeast China and to tiptoe into ancient monasteries and palaces, with eloquent and entertaining locals as my guides. This travel was, alas, only in the mind, but I relished it every day—an eight-hour minivacation in both space and time. My purported task was to copyedit the 1,270 manuscript pages of the English translation of Stories Old and New, a set of forty vernacular short stories collected in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by the most knowledgeable connoisseur of popular Chinese literature of his time, Feng Menglong. My true mission, however, was deeper and more subversive: to undermine cultural stereotypes by providing the English-reading world with an unmediated view of Chinese culture and society.

Back then, I still was doing occasional copyediting in addition to acquiring books in Asian studies and various other fields. At its best, copyediting can be like tackling a cleverly constructed crossword puzzle, a self-contained and satisfying task—not something I care to do full-time, but an entertaining diversion. Normally, it’s preferable to have a new set of eyes for copyediting, to spot things that the author and acquiring editor no longer have the objectivity to see, but Stories Old and New required a copy editor with Chinese-language training, and I was the only such person available. So I both acquired and copyedited the manuscript.

Pausing in front of the text and multipage style sheet (one for each story, as well as a list of recurring terms) and shifting my gaze out the office window westward toward Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, I would sometimes reflect that I had just surfaced from a time in which China was already an old and marvelously complex civilization, but the city of Seattle would not be founded for another two and a half centuries. The stories were so rich, so varied, that collectively they illustrated just about everything one needed to know about late imperial China—from history to religion to family structure. When the first Chinese edition was published in 1620, compiler and editor Feng Menglong wrote in the preface of the power of fiction:

Just ask the storytellers to demonstrate in public their art of description: they will gladden you, astonish you, move you to sad tears, rouse you to song and dance; they will prompt you to draw a sword, bow in reverence, cut off a head, or donate money. The faint-hearted will be made brave, the debauched chaste, the unkind compassionate, the obtuse ashamed. One may recite the Classic of Filial Piety and the Analects of Confucius every day, yet he will not be moved so quickly nor so profoundly as by these storytellers. (p. 6)

Shuhui Yang, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Bates College, had first written to us in 1996 about the translation of Stories Old and New that he and his wife, Yunqin Yang, a simultaneous translator at the UN, were completing. I had long been familiar with Feng Menglong’s work, and in my student days had even presented a paper comparing a courtesan in one of the stories to a famous courtesan in Sanskrit literature, a paper that was eventually published in the Journal of South Asian Literature. But the Yangs didn’t know that; our collaboration on this project seemed pure serendipity.

Cover Image: Stories to Caution

Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 2 (ISBN: 9780295985688)

After the publication of Stories Old and New, I was surprised but delighted to learn that the Yangs were forging on with translation of the two remaining volumes in Feng Menglong’s trilogy of collected short stories, known collectively as the Sanyan: Stories to Caution the World and Stories to Awaken the World. Like Stories Old and New, each volume contained forty stories. Translating the three volumes—a total of 120 stories in 4,300 manuscript pages—was a labor of love on their part, as neither received professional credit or pay (beyond very modest royalties) for this work. My colleagues were understandably concerned about the difficulty and expense of producing these oversize volumes, but with generous title subsidies from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and Bates College, along with creative typography and thin paper, we were able to publish all three.

Although English translations of a handful of the stories had been published in various anthologies, these were always abridged, omitting the many snippets of verse that are strewn throughout the stories, counterposed with the text, such as this one from “Chen Congshan Loses His Wife on Mei Ridge” (Stories Old and New, p. 342”):

Upon returning to his own yamen, the inspector held a banquet to celebrate the victory. With the slaying of Tiger of the Mountain, indeed,

 His fame spread throughout the Nanxiong region;
His skills in the martial arts won praise from all.

Also omitted were Feng’s interlinear and marginal notes, often deliciously irreverent, such as the following (in italic) from “The Courtesans Mourn Liu the Seventh in the Spring Breeze” (Stories Old and New, p. 219):

From that time on, he grew more dissolute in his ways and went so far as to take up residence in the courtesans’ quarters. On a tablet of the kind that was held by officials, he wrote, “Liu of Three Changes, Imperial Poet Designate.” Before he called on a courtesan, he would first send over this tablet and she would then prepare wine and dishes and bedding for the night. (What a carefree life! This is better than serving as an official.)

Even Chinese editions of the stories have omitted elements of the original, such as sexually explicit passages, which the Yangs translate in full. Their translation of the three-volume collection is the first—and probably will be the only—complete, unabridged English translation of this milestone work in world literature. An important editorial feature that is apparent only when the stories are seen in Feng’s original arrangement is their thematic pairing.

The flavor of the Yangs’ translation is captivating. Feng Menglong had collected stories hither and yon, modifying and even, perhaps, freshly composing some of them himself (much as the Grimm Brothers had done in Europe). The language of the stories is not classical but vernacular Chinese, a form that reflected the grammar and usage of common speech. Although easier for those of us who are not Confucian scholars to understand, Feng’s Ming-dynasty common speech is several centuries old. One of the things I love about the Yangs’ translation is the slightly old-fashioned cadence of the English phrasing, which reflects Feng’s language: things happen “in a trice,” or to “all and sundry” (as in the extract above). Although the Yangs’ command of English is among the best I’ve ever observed in non-native speakers, I wondered how they had been able to capture that subtly old-fashioned tone. When I asked about this, Yunqin’s response was, “Dickens, of course!”

After immersing myself so deeply in his world through the course of three volumes and 120 stories, I felt that I knew Feng Menglong personally and, curiously, that, were he to time-travel to my world as I had to his, he would not be perplexed or intimidated by twenty-first century culture. With his broad mind and deep curiosity, he would have eagerly engaged with the contemporary intellectual and social scene, recognizing new and fascinating variations on the same old stories.

Cover Image: Stories to Awaken

Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (ISBN: 9780295989037)

Helping to bring this trove of cultural gems to the English-speaking world was a privilege and a delight. Translators Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang were model “authors,” and we were assisted generously in the multivolume project by scholars such as Bob Hegel (Washington University), Wilt Idema (Harvard), and Andrew Plaks (Princeton). Bob wrote a capstone foreword for the final volume, and he also organized an Association for Asian Studies roundtable discussion in 2009 celebrating the completion of the set. The Yangs spoke on the process of translation; I contributed an editor/publisher’s perspective on the challenge of editing, producing, and financing such a large project; and several professors of Chinese literature discussed the use of the Sanyan stories in the classroom. The following year, another AAS panel focused on the content and style of the stories. Participants uniformly agreed that the rich content of these stories augment teaching on any aspect of traditional Chinese society. As rare, unofficial records of popular culture, they are priceless.

Sadly, despite its importance, literary translation is not adequately encouraged or rewarded. Academic departments do not count it toward promotion and tenure; publication subsidies and book prizes usually exclude it; and, with rare exceptions, translated literature does not sell well. Yet, I believe that, over time, books like our Ming Dynasty Collection trilogy, which enable readers to experience another culture directly, through native eyes, will matter more in advancing cultural understanding than will analytical works. Good translations allow readers to connect deeply with other times and places; to observe them first-hand; to experience amazement at both differences from and similarities to one’s own culture; to, for a moment, forget self and place and time.

While reading a chunk of the first draft of volume 3 on my commute to work one morning back in 2006, I was so mesmerized by “The Grateful Tiger” that I missed my bus stop:

But they had hardly gone a few paces when a sudden strong gust of wind blew out all the lanterns and torches. A yellow-striped tiger with bulging eyes and a white forehead was seen leaping down from midair. The crowd shrieked and ran pell-mell in all directions.

They thought their lives were in danger;
Their souls took flight in fear.

When the wind died down and the tiger was gone, everyone cried out, “Thank heaven!” They relit the lanterns and the torches, and as they were preparing to go on with their journey, the sedan-chair carriers exclaimed, “Oh no!” Of the two sedan-chairs, one was now empty. A look with a torch confirmed that the bride had disappeared. . . .

Reluctantly, I disembarked at the next stop and trudged uphill to the office, wistful for the Ming.

by Niko Pfund, Publisher, Trade & Academic, Oxford University Press (USA)
A Books That Matter Essay

Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, by Carleton Mabee (NYU Press, 1995)
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke (NYU Press, 2000)

Like most university press directors, I could pen an entire collection of essays on books with which I have been proud to be associated. I’ll focus here on two books that I acquired and edited at NYU Press rather than published, since an editor’s involvement is always more direct than a publisher’s. Both of these books provide a wholly original and counterintuitive perspective on a familiar topic, in both cases a subject rife with emotion, passion, and conflict.

Cover: Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (ISBN: 9780814755259)

In the early 1990s I came across the manuscript of a revisionist biography of legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth by Carleton Mabee, a SUNY historian who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his biography of Samuel F. B. Morse, and was immediately intrigued. I was especially struck by his contention that Truth never actually uttered the phrase with which she is most famously associated, “Ain’t I A Woman?,” spoken defiantly, it had long been believed, to a hostile crowd uneasy about the establishment of a direct link between women’s rights and abolitionism, at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.  Instead, Mabee claimed, Truth’s speech was met enthusiastically. The hisses and catcalls that purportedly rang out from the crowd were in fact the later embellishment of Frances Gage, one of the organizers of the conference, in a chronicle written years after the fact. Mabee further contended that the famous phrase was not in fact Truth’s at all, but rather of Gage’s later manufacture, basing his claim on an examination of both Truth’s and Gage’s use of language in their speeches and writings, and a review of newspaper accounts in the days immediately following the conference, which contained no mention of any such expression.

While the Akron convention may have been devoid of the specific dramas attributed to it, the publication of Mabee’s book itself made for some moments of considerable drama at the 1993 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Mabee was perhaps 30 years the senior of his fellow presenters, and was, if memory serves, the only man and the only white person on the panel. Appearing alongside a panel of Truth biographers at one of the conference’s best-attended sessions, held in the large auditorium at Vassar College, Mabee’s presentation of his findings was greeted respectfully by the other panelists.

The excitement began during the Q&A, when a member of the audience stood up, wearing a black “Silence = Death” t-shirt, and claimed that Mabee’s work was motivated solely by his desire to tear down an iconic female figure. The time has passed, she said angrily, when we should let a white man guide our interpretation of the life of a prominent African-American woman. Carleton remained impassive and a hush fell over the audience, as I sat squirming in the front row.

After a tense few moments, the Princeton historian Nell Painter, who was at the time working on her own biography of Truth and thus had every reason to feel ambivalent about Mabee’s work appearing before hers, took the microphone. Painter began by saying that it was she who had invited Mabee to the conference. His work, she continued, was important and, er, truthful, rooted in imaginative archival research and fact. Her own work would make use of his when her book (which was widely considered the definitive biography of Truth upon publication) was released. As 300 women historians sat rapt, she concluded that the time had happily passed when scholars of women’s history needed to shore up their subjects as a means of validating the field of study. Sojourner Truth, she said was a remarkable and potent historical figure, and no one should feel the need to erect—or sustain—mythical scaffolding to prop her up.

Debates over identity politics were roiling the humanities in 1993, but Painter’s remarks were met with loud, sustained applause.


Cover: The Spitting Image

The Spitting Image (ISBN: 9780814751473)

Some topics act as a canvas onto which we project our pre-existing beliefs. Rather than engaging with other perspectives to challenge and test those beliefs, too often we simply search for empirical evidence—however selectively chosen or disingenuously applied—to support our established sense of how the world *is*. And so there are few more gratifying experiences as a publisher than contributing in some small, vicarious way to changing the way we think.

The Vietnam War, as a barometer of America’s trajectory as a nation and global power, is clearly such a topic. And, of all the contested iconography that came out of that war, the image of the American soldier returning home, crisply uniformed and eagerly anticipating a family reunion, only to be met by an anti- war protestor who spits on him and calls him “baby killer” has been one of the most potent and most resilient.

Only, claimed Holy Cross sociologist Jerry Lembcke, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, it never happened. Not once, at least not according to any available evidence other than individual memories, which are, as oral history has shown us, notoriously changeable over time.

When I first encountered it, Lembcke’s argument struck me as overstated. Surely, I thought, this must have happened at least a few times and then been exaggerated; why else would everyone think it had? But the further I read and the more Lembcke and I discussed the project, the more persuasive I found his claim. The spectre of the hippy protestor (most often a woman, frequently wearing a flowery dress, almost always in the San Francisco airport) spitting on the returning vet was first given life, according to Lembcke, in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and then became culturally institutionalized in the mumbling monologues of Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo films. In fact, the only Vietnam-era episode Lembcke unearthed of someone being spat upon occurred during a rally by Vietnam Veterans Against the War when an anti-war protester was spat upon by another veteran countermarching with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Even as I found Lembcke’s argument increasingly persuasive, I failed in my attempt to get him to address why so many returning soldiers absorbed this claim of having been spat upon into their own autobiographies, and how the obvious unease that Americans felt in welcoming home veterans of a “lost war” was translated by soldiers into feelings of having been spat upon. Here I should note that I sent a draft of this piece to Jerry, who disagreed with my recollection here: “I think I did address the question why veterans say they were spat on. The stories are a form of scapegoating, i.e., blaming the loss of the war on home front betrayal and gendering those stories with girls or young women (or male longhairs) cast as spitters. The stories also conjure the image of the spat-on `good veteran’ that displaces from public memory the real-life anti-war veteran with whom the public is uncomfortable. The book’s contribution to the study of myth-construction is some of what has given it the legs it has.”

In any event, the book was widely reviewed upon publication, including an above-the-fold feature piece in the purple “Life” section of USA Today. Every review was met with incredulous, often irate readers’ responses as well as with other letters best distilled as “finally!” Jerry was tireless in engaging with all perspectives. His work compelled precisely the sort of debate that both author and editor had hoped for.

Given what a dicey proposition it is to accuse others of having in effect embraced a false consciousness—or, put more bluntly, having made things up—about their own autobiographies, Jerry faced some challenging moments during the promotional campaign for the book. At a reading at Clark University, a group of VFW members assembled outside before the talk and then marched in, taking up most of the front row seats. Within a few minutes of Lembcke’s opening comments, they began shouting comments and questions like “Where were you during the war?” Happily, Lembcke is not a shrinking violet. He didn’t shy away from these encounters but was even animated by them and welcomed the engagement, however fierce, holding his ground and giving as good as he got.

Influential books have a long life, and so The Spitting Image has seen several revivals. The 2006 film Sir! No Sir! featured the book, giving it its biggest post-launch boost. Manohla Dargis, the New York Times critic, favorably reviewed the film, specifically mentioning the book. Seven years after the book’s publication, Sir! No Sir! served as a second launch of sorts for The Spitting Image.  More recently, the LA Times editorialized about President Obama’s 2012 Memorial Day speech and built its critique around The Spitting Image, citing the book favorably.

Jerry continues his revisionist ways, most recently publishing a book about Jane Fonda, Hanoi Jane, with the University of Massachusetts Press. He reports “a donnybrook at the Waterbury CT public library in 2010 where a group of about 20 veterans decked-out in “I’m Not Fond ’a’ Fonda” t-shirts picketed outside and then entered the auditorium where they forced an early end to my talk and then intimidated other attendees in the Q&A to the point where a police officer stepped to the front of the room to cool things down.”

I just hit my quarter-century mark in scholarly publishing. Writing this piece, and reliving the experience of publishing these two books, affirms for me yet again how much I love the work we do, how valuable that work is, and how lucky we are to be academic publishers.

by Meredith Morris-Babb, Director, University Press of Florida
A Books That Matter Essay

The Fosse Style, by Debra McWaters, Foreword by Ben Vereen (University Press of Florida, 2008)

Book Cover: The Fosse Style

The Fosse Style (ISBN: 978-0-8130-3153-8)

“Dance as though no one was watching.” When the opportunity to acquire books in dance can into my life, I tour jetté-d at the chance. What better way to express one’s love for dance then through books for everyone?

I love the ballet and all of its force of emotion and music, but my heart is drawn to jazz dance, specifically, the dances and choreography of Mr. Bob Fosse, Mr. Jazz Hands himself. Now there was a man who knew how to break from the known, go to the edge with unflinching conviction, guided by a vision and style that remains unique and complete. His signature movements were so subtle yet so powerful in their expression, sensual in their delivery, cynical in their purpose, provocative in their meaning. Most people regard him as the guy behind Cabaret and Chicago, and those musicals do indulge in his singular style. But if you want to see classic Fosse, watch him as the Snake in “The Little Prince.” It’s like Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark—only that man could play that part so well. Fosse simply was the snake. However, I am drawn to other works—The Pajama Game with Gwen Verdon dancing “Steam Heat,” and the movie All that Jazz with the number “Bye-Bye Life.” How many performers get to choreograph their final performance? Genius.

What bothered my editorial sensibilities though, were the Fosse knockoffs; those crass imitators who saw nothing more than hip thrusts and cocked wrists as Fosse-style. Here, in Bob Fosse as much as in the dances of Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharpe, was the American jazz style. So was this magic to be lost simply because Fosse never had a dance company? Stars have had their careers made with his dance—Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli still make his dances the center of their one-person shows. You know it when you see it, and, if you know it, you know when it is done badly. So the editor in me wanted to codify that style, capture that genie of technique and pedagogy in a Fosse-style bottle.

About four years after making my move to the University Press of Florida, a press with a strong list in music and dance, my chance arrived. The Carr Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida had booked the show Fosse!, a retrospective of Fosse’s work created by Ann Reinking, a protégé and romantic partner of Fosse’s, in collaboration with Gwen Verdon, his wife and mother of his daughter. The three-act musical is a marvelous tribute and a wonderful documentary of Fosse’s evolution as a choreographer. Of course, I had contacted Ann Reinking about a book project, but she expressed no interest. I wanted to meet the person who was staging and directing the show—perhaps here was the author for my dream book. It turns out, in a surely serendipitous sign, that the dance director, Deb McWaters, was living in Tampa.

Deb and I hit it off immediately. We both shared the same vision and the need for a collaborative effort to preserve that which we both found precious and special in Fosse’s work. Many issues needed to be fleshed out before we could begin with a proposal, however, much less a contract.  Were the dances in copyright? Did Nicole Fosse, his daughter and artistic estate heir, own the trademark on his image, name and use?  What was Reinking’s role going to be? Did the estate of Gwen Verdon have any say? Was this going to be a legal nightmare like a book on Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley? Almost, almost…

First, we contacted Nicole Fosse. We received approval to do a book on the dance style of Fosse using the production Fosse! as the basis, but Reinking would have to pre-approve everything. Well, that made sense, and we proceeded with the estate’s permission. But of course, things never go quite that easily. For reasons that are still unclear, Ann Reinking suddenly opposed the idea, stating that if anyone should do this book it should be her, an idea she had already declined once.

I wrote to the Fosse estate lawyers asking if the dance moves (not the choreography) were trademarked or copyrighted in anyway. In other words, was there anything preventing us from showing moves as being in the Fosse STYLE but not recreating any single Fosse dance in toto. The lawyers reluctantly agreed that we could proceed in this manner, but of course that meant no endorsement from either the family or Ann Reinking. This was the dilemma. Do we honor the wishes of the ex-girlfriend, or do we preserve for posterity that which was not going to be done otherwise, for it was evident that this denial of participation had a personal element in it. Deb, it appeared, had fallen out of favor and no longer was of the tribe. But Reinking made it quite clear that she had no intention of creating such a book herself or with Fosse’s daughter. Posterity or publicity: that was the question.

We opted for posterity.

Ilustration of Fosse-style dance

© 2012 The Barn Players Community Theatre, a 501(c)3 organization.

The book required defining Fosse’s funky names for all of the moves and postures, then photographing dancers performing them. This was very challenging as Fosse’s choreography is filled with small, subtle, nuanced, movements. Fosse once described himself as “turned in:” rounded shoulders, knocked-knees, and fallen insteps all lead Fosse to create a closed-up, tightly wound, style with bursts of unexpected openness and freedom. The signature wrist rolls are called the “Soft-Boiled-Egg Roll,” and are to be performed as if holding an egg. Sequential photography to show the Fosse version of the Mosh Pit (“The Clump”) and its variations the “amoeba” and “seaweed,” the hat flip with fingers extended, and so on, were needed.  Fosse’s dancers are so highly stylized, yet you can see how easily a dancer can put their own mark on this choreography.

How to capture this? Dance is so visual, all mirrors upon mirrors, that dance technique is quite demanding to capture on film.  We opted to use both male and female dancers, two of each, to demonstrate how personal the movements could be. Each movement was done in at least three sequential photos. The book was divided into body parts because that was how Fosse taught his classes. The book closes with a sequence of photographs from the earlier chapters that show how the moves can be put together into a Fosse-style dance.  We really wanted to re-create “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” but the lawyers said “no.” So we created a fake Fosse dance using Fosse-style moves. It worked brilliantly. Deb was able to capture in the narrative how necessary it was for dancers to perform a move perfectly AND improvise within the style, for the dancer to be utterly fearless because the first eight counts belong to them alone.

As we neared the end of both our budget ($1200 for the photography alone!) and our endurance, Ben Vereen called me out of the blue. Yes THAT Ben Vereen.  He had heard about the book and offers to write a foreword. Hallelujah, the Fosse angels are here! The foreword is a loving tribute, and Deb is most gracious in her acknowledgements even to Reinking.  Once final piece was needed: the essay or prologue that would place Fosse into the dance historical context. Why did this man’s vision matter? What did he contribute? Dance critic and historian Mindy Aloff provided the prologue and we were done.

The book has done reasonably well, but it did not earn back its costs in Year One. It remains a solid if not stellar backlist contributor. But that was not the point. Deb, I, and all the dancers put into the written record, for all the ages, the genius that was Bob Fosse. That is so satisfying and rewarding. Because every time I walk into a big meeting or presentation I always think…

“Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle…..”

by Susan Ferber, Executive Editor, American and World History, Oxford University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, by Peggy Pascoe (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Book Cover: What Comes Naturally

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (ISBN: 9780195094633)

I had inherited so many files for so many overdue books. It was hard to know what would ever come to fruition. Every year I would see Peggy Pascoe at the Western Historical Association conference. Over tea we would commiserate about constant sinus infections, and she would apologize for being late and tell me that, really, she was working on it and she didn’t want to give it to me to read until she felt it was ready. Every year I’d also hear from others about all the invaluable reviews she was doing of young scholars’ and colleagues’ manuscripts, editing their work closely and helping them to publish the very best versions of their books.

Peggy’s manuscript was 14 years overdue on the contractual deadline. Any commercial press would have dropped the project by that point. But good things often come to university press editors who wait. What Comes Naturally was going to examine local and state miscegenation laws—widespread race-based legal restrictions on marriage—across the United States and how they affected those who tried to marry from the Civil War to the 1960s. It was a brilliant idea for a book and much anticipated by historians. It was also an immense research job, requiring many trips to archives around the country, made even more challenging after Pascoe and her partner adopted two babies.

Then came the day when she told me she had been diagnosed with cancer. She was determined not to leave her book undone. Soon after, I attended a panel on Peggy’s career held at a conference, which seemed a little like attending a memorial service for someone still alive, and one paper was about her forthcoming book. Another was on Peggy as manuscript reviewer and an in-depth analysis of the kind of work she did as a series editor for the Crossroads series at the University of California Press and for other historians. (This was later published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives as “The Art of Manuscript Reviewing: Learning from the Example of Peggy Pascoe.”) I’d never felt so intimidated by the idea of editing a project. Clearly Peggy was a master editor. While I’m not normally fazed by the prospect of working on anyone’s prose, this bar was set high.

When Peggy delivered a manuscript, I sat down immediately to work on it, worried that time was of the essence. It was all that I hoped it would be and more—sweeping in scope, erudite, full of archival gems, aiming to make arguments in the conclusion about the shift from discriminatory laws based on color to ones based on sex. Fortunately I found some ways to improve the manuscript and offered some suggestions, trying to weigh my concern about not having been tough enough against my sheer awe for the achievement on the pages. Peggy was such a professional that, even when she was undergoing many rounds of chemo, even when she couldn’t sit for more than half an hour at a time, she worked on finishing her book, revising after I’d edited, reviewing her copyedits, reading her page proofs, answering all her emails. I knew it was a great physical feat, not just an intellectual one. Her partner, Linda Long, did superb photo research so there were some unusual images of people and places that are rarely seen, such as the courthouse wedding of a couple that many in society legislated and fought to keep apart.

Every step of the way, I worried that Peggy wouldn’t make it to the next one. Her immune system was so weakened. The drugs weren’t working. She was experiencing horrific side effects.  But her spirit was so strong, I knew she was fighting to spend more time with her daughters and to see her finished book. She complained about having to spend time battling the health insurance company, but she seemed to find joy in spending time having massages and having herself taken care of, time I knew she hadn’t made on a regular basis when life was so busy. She never neglected her graduate students or her responsibilities as a faculty member, even when she had to stop teaching.

I’ll never forget the day What Comes Naturally came in from the printer, and because there is a superb photo of it, the day Peggy got her first book in the mail. It was more than being an editor, getting to publish her work; it was an honor and a mitzvah.

Not only did she live to see her book published, but Peggy survived long enough to see it win five prizes and the public acclaim of her colleagues. She was even able to receive four of these awards in person.  The last time I saw her when was when she went to San Diego, to the American Historical Association, both to be honored in person and to attend a panel about her book. We sat next to one another during the panel, but she was firm about not wanting to speak, to let others interpret its meaning. She was such a humble person, I knew that this panel had embarrassed her, but it is so rare to hear others talk about how a book, so soon after publication, had sparked and inspired new research agendas. We had lunch outside that day, overlooking the marina. We talked about so many things apart from the book, as we had increasingly done over email. I have thought about those conversations many times since–how hard it is be a workaholic and to have to learn how to prioritize what is truly important and what you don’t want to leave undone in life. Those lessons will never leave me, even though Peggy sadly departed this earth two years ago.

Peggy was a consummate professional, a generous and gracious soul, and someone who continues to inspire me because of the work she did, not just as an author but also as an editor.

Read “In Memoriam: Peggy Pascoe” (AHA) and visit Dr. Pascoe’s University of Oregon faculty page

by Will Underwood, Director, Kent State University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community; Photographs by Gary Harwood; Text by David Hassler (Kent State University Press, 2006)

Book Cover: Growing Season

Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community (ISBN: 978-0873388733)

This book’s story begins at a 2003 reception for the late David Citino, whose essay collection, Paperwork, had recently been published by Kent State University Press. KSU photographer Gary Harwood discreetly circulated among the guests, expertly capturing images of the event. Our marketing intern, Mario Morelos, asked Gary, “How is your migrant worker project going?” and our senior editor and I both immediately reacted with, “What migrant worker project?” That was the beginning of what eventually became Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community.

For several years before we learned of his work, Gary had been making the 35-minute drive south from Kent to Hartville, Ohio, to photograph the migrants, mostly Mexican, who work on the K.W. Zellers farm. Gary had discovered the migrant community when he was assigned to cover the KSU nursing students’ role at the nearby free clinic that serves the migrants. He hadn’t known that just a few miles south of Kent is a community of farm workers, whole families who come north on migrant visas to pick vegetables in the region’s rich black soil, from late spring up to fall’s first killing frost, before moving on to Texas and eventually back to their homes in Mexico. Largely unseen and unknown to the majority population, these workers live on the Zellers’s farm in comfortable temporary housing provided by the landowner; when not in school, older teens work alongside their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, harvesting the produce that ends up in supermarkets and on dining tables throughout the eastern United States. This nearly invisible community-within-a-community fascinated Gary. The mystery of who these people are combined with the invitingly rich visual material was irresistible to him.

Radish Harvest

Prepared for inclement weather, Patricia Prieto works with her crew to harvest radishes during a morning rain. (Photo by Gary Harwood. Reprinted with permission.)

For two years Gary photographed the migrants from afar in all seasons, from sunup to sundown; he was chased off the Zellers’s property more than once before being granted grudging access to photograph the workers up close by Jeff Zellers, whose reputation had been damaged more than once by sensation-seeking journalists. After a few more years Gary was no longer regarded as a stranger, but became an accepted presence. Eventually he was invited into homes, asked to attend weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and first communions—and asked take photos! More than just a curiosity from the Anglo world, Gary became a friend. As this slow transformation from outsider to insider to friend progressed, Gary gathered a rich visual record of a tightly-knit community and the group of permanent residents and volunteers who support it.

After seeing his portfolio, we were captivated. We told him, “Gary, these need to be in a book, and we want to publish it.” But we knew that in order to complete the story, his photographs needed complementary text. I suggested Gary contact poet and writer David Hassler. Independently and coincidentally, Gary had already discussed the project with David. We signed both men up, and their collaboration began.

Moving Crates

Workers move crates from the trucks to the fields, where they will be packed with fresh lettuce and placed back on the truck for delivery to the wash house. (Photo by Gary Harwood. Reprinted with permission.)

David interviewed the migrants and the permanent residents of the community who work, often as volunteers, to support them—nurses, social workers, neighbors, farm owner Jeff Zellers, teachers, the parish priest, the bishop. The resulting rich oral histories did not explain the photographs; the photographs did not illustrate the stories. Instead the two media worked together liked a musical score, forming a contrapuntal and complementary whole, greater than its several parts.

After working intensively with the staff at KSU Press, Gary’s and David’s joint effort became Growing Season, a record in words and pictures of a small, tightly-knit community of America’s underclass, well-treated by their conservative employer, supported by their sometime neighbors, a story that defies stereotypes of downtrodden immigrants, illegal aliens, and exploitative employers. It’s not a story of extremes of oppression and gloom but rather one of quiet dignity, joy, toil, hope, and a measure of success against tough odds. Both a collection of stunning photographs and a catalog of moving oral histories, Growing Season serves as a model in microcosm of how things can be if each of us lives up to the moral duty we have to one another and keeps the social contract whole and healthy.

Growing Season Gala

At the Canton Museum of Art in September 2006 three of the migrant workers documented in Growing Season sign under their photos in the book. (Photo courtesy Gary Harwood.)

Growing Season garnered financial support from the Ohio Arts Council, regional corporate foundations, and the owner of a local chain of grocery stores. It was launched in 2006 at a gala reception at the Canton Museum of Art, where an exhibit of Gary’s photographs and panels of David’s stories were on display. Several of the migrants—including children—and local community members were guests of honor. A number of tables were set up along which they sat with beaming faces, chatting with guests and signing their names next to their pictures in the book.

Growing Season Gala 2

Photographer Gary Harwood and Brianna Soto sign copies of Growing Season at the Canton Museum of Art in September 2006. (Photo courtesy Gary Harwood.)

by Parneshia Jones, Sales and Subsidiary Rights Manager and Poetry Editor, Northwestern University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney (Northwestern University Press/Triquarterly, 2011)

Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney (ISBN: 978-0-8101-5216-8)

I was twenty-one years old with two poems to my name when I first heard the words of the resident Geechee Girl from South Carolina. A long, distilled woman with bronze dreadlocks, unshaken in her air, deliberate with her words, she was crafting stories into rich, poetic voice. I was a burgeoning poet, hanging on to every line, surrounded in a room of writers and non-writers who came to a halt and attention, captivated by the poet Nikky Finney.

Ten years and many poems later I sat in my office as the sales and subsidiary rights manager and poetry editor at Northwestern University Press with a carefully typed manuscript entitled Head Off & Split and a handwritten note (that seemed to pay special attention to the roundness in the Rs and Es) from the very poet I had admired for so long, from afar. Now, to put it like this would give the impression that her manuscript just showed up on my desk one day. No, this is not how it happened. Nikky and I saw each other occasionally throughout the years, and I now know that she was watching me grow in my publishing world as I watched her claim the poetry world. We came into this partnership as friends, each with a great deal of trust and faith in what the other could do.

When I first read Head Off & Split, loose pages brimming with metaphors not able to stay on the page, I took a step back (a literal one) and paced in my living room thinking and imagining. I imagined readers’ reactions when they finished the last lines of “Red Velvet” or “The Condoleezza Suite.” This was a writer who could make you imagine something greater than you. Nikky made it clear from the beginning that she was ready to turn the corner in her writing career, and she wanted to do that with Northwestern. Northwestern was ready to turn that corner with her, and with that Head Off & Split made its debut in February 2011. With a second printing two months later, a cover story for the April issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, and features of the poet and her poems in multimedia and publicity pushes making the rounds in every social networking outlet, the book was a success long before October 12, 2011.

October 12, 2011, was the day it was announced that Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split, and Northwestern University Press had been nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. With no intention to sound cavalier, I must say that I had been to the National Book Awards before. In 2004, a year and a half after I started work at Northwestern, my first trip to New York City was to be present at the awards ceremony for our fiction nominee, Christine Schutt. I already knew how grand this was going to be. This was the Oscars of publishing and as a writer myself, I knew this was a “Cinderella moment” for any writer. My experience was very different this time: this was a book that I acquired, a writer who was a friend, a friend whom I had become very close to over this journey of putting her book out into the world. This time, it really was personal. Staff from the Press, including the director and publicity manager as well as the dean of libraries, descended on New York City with the poet and her family. One of the great highlights was meeting Nikky’s parents, Ernest and Francis Finney, a retired South Carolina Supreme Court Justice and civil rights attorney and a retired elementary school teacher. They spread their proud parent wings and came all the way from Nikky’s ancestral home of South Carolina to watch their daughter be Cinderella for the night. The night at Cipriani was filled with bellinis and sequins, the flashes of cameras and raised iPads, and ribbon-wrapped book centerpieces. Everything in motion stood still for the seconds that could have passed for hours before the poet Elizabeth Alexander called out Nikky Finney to the whole wide world. The cheers from our table could be heard all the way outside, down the Occupied Wall Streets, and the distilled poet, for the first time since I have known her, was shaken in her own air. She reached the podium and made it clear to all those who knew her (and those who didn’t yet know her) why she was the National Book Award Winner for Poetry. Her acceptance speech, written as a poem, was one she had been crafting her whole life.

I am beyond grateful to Northwestern for trusting me to step outside and use my love and liberty as a poet to bring the writers of my world to this great house of literature. And I am immensely blessed by my friend Nikky Finney, writer of longitude, latitude, and reverie, who introduced me to her words ten years prior and made sure they lingered long enough for me to help her share them with rest of the world.

Watch Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech (called by presenter John Lithgow “the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life”):

by Clair Willcox, Editor-in-Chief, University of Missouri Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Blue Highways Revisited, by Edgar I. Ailor, III; Foreword by William Least Heat-Moon (University of Missouri Press, 2012)

Book Cover: Blue Highways Revisited

Blue Highways Revisited, by Ed Ailor, III (ISBN: 978-0-8262-1969-5)

All acquiring editors of a certain vintage have stories—half-repressed and revealed only under substantial duress or with sufficient libation—about the manuscripts that got away. The hook thrown with a savage twist, the frayed leader snapped during an abrupt leap, the fumbled landing net in the shallows along the bank…a flash of silver, and it’s “Sayonara, sucker! I’m off to Random House or Routledge.” On the other hand, there are those manuscripts that take you completely unaware, those that astonish and gratify with their unforeseen proximity and disguised promise, the ones that nuzzle at your waders while you squint through the glare to survey distant prospects upstream.

Such unexpected catches under the least likely circumstances are among my favorite books. An old college buddy somehow weathers the stultifying jargon of a postgraduate education in anthropology to find his own prose voice in a lively, informative depiction of zoos and their often canny residents. A prosecuting attorney who pens historical novels on the side relates humorous and horrifying experiences he has had with cops, criminals, lawyers, and judges. A professor of jazz at a distinguished music academy reaches back through her family’s clouded history for a narrative of slavery, racial ambiguity, deception, and survival. The widow of a longtime guard at Alcatraz Penitentiary comes forward with his overlooked account of life on the Rock in the era of Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman.

One such instance followed a chance meeting at the entryway of a local big-box emporium. As I muscled our overloaded cart toward the doors, I saw my wife pause to chat with someone. Dr. Ed Ailor is a soft-spoken man with an accent that reflects his upbringing in Cape Girardeau, a historic Mississippi River town near the Missouri Bootheel at the state’s southeastern extreme. For me, his manner has a certain gentility without the word’s contemporary associations of snobbery, gentilesse as Chaucer used it to convey the natural courtesy and dignity of the gentlefolk. By all accounts, this quality served him well in his medical practice as a specialist in ailments of the ear, nose, and throat. In contrast to the unmuzzled egos of too many surgeons, volatile prima donnas of the operating room, he had a reputation among nurses and surgical technicians for displaying a cool head and a cordial demeanor even when procedures didn’t go well. He was also known for explaining the complexities of his arcane trade to patients and their families in respectful, down-to-earth terms.

My wife and I had witnessed his medical skill firsthand some twenty-five years before. Our only daughter, an undersized toddler barely two years old, suffered from a sore throat accompanied by some swelling. One night a few days into her course of antibiotics, the swelling worsened until it obstructed her airway and severely interfered with her breathing. We hustled her off to the hospital, where we arranged to meet Ed Ailor. He didn’t delay in having our daughter admitted, and she was soon prepped for surgery and under general anesthesia. Operating through a tiny incision, Ed removed liquid from the festering abscess that had formed alongside a lymph node beneath her jaw.  A week’s stay in the hospital, including a day in the Intensive Care Ward, and our energetic youngster was back in action.

My wife, an operating room nurse with more than thirty-five years’ experience, still marvels at Ed’s craftsmanship that night, the way he minimized the size of the scar and hid it cleverly along a contour of skin. That detail, trivial to a two-year-old, would mean everything to a teenaged girl a decade down the road. Today, with a good magnifying glass in the right light, you might be able to find that scar on our adult daughter, who now has a toddler of her own. Oh, and there is the fact that Ed probably saved her life.

Ed had closed his medical practice about six years before our casual encounter at the store, and he had turned to fine art photography in his retirement, a hobby since high school now parlayed into a second career. I knew his work had won some prizes and had seen his landscapes hung prominently in several businesses about town and offered for sale in local galleries and craft fairs. Despite my appreciation for his newfound vocation and gratitude for the results of his former one, my internal reaction to my wife’s announcement that Ed had been working on a photography book was tempered by the expensive realities of producing four-color, oversized art books and the steadily diminishing market for them. We talked a bit about the difficulties of finding a publisher, particularly attracting the interest of a commercial house in New York. After the usual pleasantries about our families, we parted, and I really didn’t expect to hear any more about Ed’s book project.

I should have known better. Within a couple weeks, his manuscript was nestled among others awaiting my review. In the ensuing days, as it made its way ominously toward the front of the queue, I grew increasingly nervous about what I would find. If there is anything worse than rejecting the work of perfect strangers, it’s rejecting manuscripts by people you know and respect. Turning away someone you actually like reaches another level of regret entirely, a situation that the euphemism “awkward” doesn’t begin to register. Of course, I did what any savvy publishing veteran would do—I procrastinated until it was impossible to stall any longer.

When I did steel myself to look at the manuscript, it was immediately obvious that my anxiety was unwarranted. Ed had found a unique and rich topic, a combination of photojournalism, literary exploration, and subtle social commentary. Shortly after launching his photography business, he had approached bestselling author William Least Heat-Moon, one of his neighbors and a fellow fan of the University of Missouri’s athletic teams, to discuss a scheme to retrace the nearly 14,000-mile journey that the author had recounted in his 1982 travel classic, Blue Highways. Along with his son, also a photographer, Ed hoped to visit as many of the places and people that Heat-Moon had written about in his book as it was still possible to see, photographing them in their current conditions and describing their fortunes, good or bad, during the thirty years since the first publication.

Heat-Moon, who had originally intended to pack Blue Highways with his own photographs, decided instead to limit the illustrations mostly to portraits he had made of those he interviewed. Over the years at signings and readings for his books, many people had encouraged him to revisit the byways of his long journey. Although he was more than a little dubious that anyone would again traverse the entire 13,889 miles, he warmed to the proposal as he came to appreciate Ed’s enthusiasm and resolve for the undertaking. Over the course of six years, Ed and his son completed their trip in stages, and Heat-Moon assisted as his schedule permitted, allowing them to photograph objects associated with the creation of his book, giving access to his notes and numerous typed drafts, and offering editorial advice. He also arranged for them to include monochrome images from his original trip beside their own color shots from the present.

Graced with a foreword by Heat-Moon, the manuscript was a clear winner. It created a virtual dialog between aspects of everyday American life in the late 1970s and its legacy just after the turn of the new century. With before-and-after photographs of the folks Heat-Moon had met, as well as the landscape and buildings he had seen, the Ailors created historical resonance and propelled a prototypical American quest forward into the present. Detailed captions and quotations from relevant parts of Blue Highways enhanced the artful photographs, which were worthy of acclaim in their own right. After the manuscript sailed through the review process, it underwent routine copyediting, the careful ministrations of a book designer, and before long it was ready for its debut.

Mild-mannered though he may be, Ed Ailor proved to be a relentless promoter of Blue Highways Revisited. He set up gallery and museum exhibits of his prints, signed copies of the book at every opportunity, presented slide shows, and gave talks about the process of creating the book. He also did interviews whenever he could. One afternoon, I received an urgent call from him. He and Will Heat-Moon were slated for an appearance on a local radio show within the hour, and he was calling from his mobile phone while driving to the studio. It was a terrific promotional opportunity, and between the two of them there would be plenty of discussion about Ed’s book and Heat-Moon’s well-known inspiration for it. In addition to taking calls from listeners, the radio station would be transmitting live internet video with high-definition reproductions of the photographs.

The reason for Ed’s call took me completely by surprise. Not long before air time, the host of the program had phoned to say there would be an additional, unexpected guest. The surprise guest would be given the first fifteen minutes of the program to talk about the shaky future of university presses and the “broken model” of scholarly publishing. Knowing something of his argument, in part that university presses, including our own, had become hidebound relics from the age of Gutenberg, Ed wanted me to provide him with details about the operation of our press, including information such as the number and kind of digital formats we employed for our books. My immediate response was to advise him and Heat-Moon not to participate because the producer had booked them under the false pretense that the show would focus exclusively on Blue Highways Revisited. By throwing them together with a critic of Ed’s publisher, the producer was clearly trying to spice up the discussion with artificial controversy. She wanted to turn the program into a sensational free-for-all.

But Ed and his friend would have none of my protestations that they should avoid a potentially embarrassing fiasco. They not only intended to appear on the show as scheduled, but they wanted to make sure they were armed with as many pertinent facts as I could provide before the confrontation. In the midst of my objections that he shouldn’t have to fight someone else’s battle or sacrifice the chance to pitch his book, Ed interrupted me. He said simply, “There are more important things than my book.”

I can say in all candor that I’ve never heard an author expressing a sentiment remotely resembling Ed’s straightforward declaration. I have serious doubts that I ever will again.

It almost seems anticlimactic to add that the two of them were more than equal to the opposition that day.


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