Letters

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Fighting Modern Slavery

Fall 2011 Columbia Magazine coverThank you for bringing us Paul Hond’s “The Long Night” (Fall 2011). It shines a spotlight on a most shocking and shameful dimension of humanity. Awareness of modern slavery is not as widespread as it should be, considering it is a highly profitable, global criminal industry.

I recall learning in elementary school about the complex history of slavery in America. I vividly remember wondering if I would have had the strength of character to fight for the freedom of slaves had I lived in those times. Today, for me and for my children, who attend an elementary school without a modern-slavery curriculum, this is no longer a theoretical question.

“The Long Night” reads like the tale of a team of relay runners passing the baton, one to the other; it took a series of efforts before, finally, the UN acknowledged the slave trading of UN monitors sent to protect the people of Bosnia. These Columbia alumnae — Tanya Domi, Larysa Kondracki, and Eilis Kirwan — were moved to action against the inhumanity of slavery. They and their fellow alumni, Siddharth Kara, Faith Huckel, and Carol Smolenski, all found a way to use their backgrounds in social work, business, or film to fight slavery. It was inspiring. But it left me with a continually pressing question: do I have the strength of character to find a way, with my background and in my line of work, to fight slavery — in these times?

Keren Blum ’09TC
Rebbetzin, Chabad at Columbia University

 

A Fruitful Idea

Having written one of the first pieces about vertical farming for New York magazine back in the spring of 2007, I was a little surprised that Columbia Magazine was just now getting around to covering Dickson Despommier, but you advanced the story quite nicely (“New Crop City,” Fall 2011).

The only thing I would add is the story behind the story: were it not for the power of the Internet, the idea would probably still just be incubating with Despommier’s graduate students. The fact is, my vertical-farm story was, hands down, the most viral piece I’ve ever written. It ricocheted around the world with astonishing velocity; newspapers from the Middle East to Europe downloaded the piece and reprinted it. It has been amazing to witness what struck me at the time as a pretty cool but perhaps slightly wacky idea take on a life of its own — and even come to fruition. 

Lisa Chamberlain ’03JRN
Brooklyn, NY 

 

I read “New Crop City” and was sorry to learn that the idea has detractors among the ranks of organic gardeners. My understanding of your article drew me to the following conclusions: high-rise agriculture could use water that can be recycled endlessly (how about also collecting the vast quantities of rainwater that fall on urban roofs?); eliminate pesticides; provide totally safe food (isn’t this what organic gardening should really be about?); prevent exploitation of immigrant agricultural workers and their children; make community-beneficial use of land area and recycle blighted inner-city landscapes; be a start in managing the salinization and breakdown of soil-based agriculture and intensive agri-irrigation; and provide significantly greater yields of food crops.

Are any of these statements false or only partly true? I am an enthusiastic supporter of the concept and want to know much more about its practice.

Victoria Hardiman ’65GS, ’67GSAS
Ames, OK

David J. Craig responds: In his book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, Dickson Despommier describes many potential health, social, and economic benefits of indoor farming, including all those you mention here.

 

Let us be realistic. Vertical farming is unrealistically expensive. Science should not be in the business of wasting money. If Columbia is serious about solving some of the world’s food problems, then it should form alliances with other universities that are ahead of us in this field, such as Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Farms need to produce protein. Raising fish in brackish water — by using water over and over because we are already running out of fresh water — is the way to go. We have plenty of sun — hothouses can be prefabricated and assembled while there is sun — but not enough water! Growing tomatoes, lettuce, or peppers, which consume a lot of water, is wasteful. The idea of vertical farming is a delusion, not science.

Charles Berman ’57DM
New York, NY

 

Trilling Matters

In my senior year, I had the privilege of attending a Trilling literature class, so it was with deep emotional and personal nostalgia that I read Adam Kirsch’s praise of the forgotten man, “Why We (Should) Read Trilling,” in the Fall issue.

I recall Stendhal’s note on opening The Charterhouse of Parma — “To the happy few.” It sounds snobbish, but it is an abiding reality that only a special and sensitive elite can appreciate the likes of Stendhal or Trilling. That is not to deny that each generation (and nation) has periods of flourishing interest in creativity in the arts and that there are times when it even reaches the masses. But those are exceptional times; they wax, and they wane. I think of the time of the Greek poets, of seventeenth-century Dutch art, of German music from Gluck to Richard Strauss, and, of course, of Shakespeare. We are in an age of coarse sensibilities. There are a “happy few” exceptions, but entertainment generally has a raw edge.

Trilling had a unique ability to grasp the style and the intent of the writer, and to articulate them in an exciting and creative way. The appeal, by the unhappy man, might be considered effete, but that is always the case when the coarse encounters the refined.

Do not despair, Adam Kirsch. Think of all the great literary names that have been lost for decades and then have risen again.

Anson Kessler ’47CC
Hendersonville, NC

 

I really enjoyed Adam Kirsch’s article on Trilling. I studied with Trilling in 1974 when I was working toward my master’s degree in comparative English literature and he taught a class on Austen on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I remember how excited he was when speaking of her Mansfield Park.

I was surprised that Kirsch didn’t mention Sincerity and Authenticity, which changed my life by making me think about honesty and morality in a new way. 

I went on to a career as a writer, novelist, actor, director, and educator. In the fog of memory, I remember having only one conversation with Trilling. I wonder now what he thought of the long-haired, very wild young poet with the Queens accent.

Richard Vetere ’74GSAS
Flushing, NY

 

I am the nephew of Morriss Hamilton Needleman, who was an “enemy” of Lionel Trilling in the 1950s. My uncle’s crime was being the author of the Barnes & Noble series An Outline-History of English Literature (with William Bradley Otis), An Outline-History of American Literature, and Handbook for Practical Composition.

In a sense, the books were the CliffsNotes of their day, but immensely more literate. They were so good, in fact, that Trilling attacked them fiercely, claiming that students used them instead of reading the literature and poetry they analyzed. At one point, Trilling gave a talk against “the chicanery of Mr. Needleman’s pamphlets,” and my uncle responded with a printed publication called A Refutation of Mr. Lionel Trilling.

Trilling’s criticism only increased the sales of my uncle’s books. “Trilling’s attacks were the best sort of help in advertising my wares,” my uncle told me.

I had veered away from Trilling all these years, out of loyalty to my departed uncle. Thank you, Adam Kirsch, for opening the door for me to Lionel Trilling’s literary criticism. I am going to give it a shot. I’ll certainly read Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters.

Arnold H. Taylor ’64TC
Plainview, NY

 

The decline of the evanescent intellectual climate that Lionel Trilling epitomized both on campus and beyond has long saddened me. Not even the zillions of blogs, which further separate people with differing views, can replace it. Long after his passing, Trilling’s name continues to signify an attitude, a way of looking critically not only at our culture but at culture itself. He called this “the liberal imagination,” something that’s all too lacking in both our national and international discourse these days. 

Trilling’s deeply held belief that complexity and experimentation with new forms have much to do with the search for truth is closely allied to his fascination with the modernistic temperament, just as his personal irony and distaste for true believers had much to do with his understanding of our limitations. Of course, while there’s much in our predominant postmodern expression that’s apparently complex, so little of it is true and even less speaks to what James Joyce called “luminosity,” an appeal to the inner imagination, where truth and beauty coalesce.

But in Trilling’s day, we also had the obsessional literalness of Cleanth Brooks, so allied in spirit as it is with the more contemporary attempt by the deconstructionists to divorce texts from any meaning beyond themselves.

Although Adam Kirsch did not note it here, in the early 1960s Trilling’s most popular course was Contemporary Modern Literature. In it, we read the greatest modern works not only of the English-speaking world but of Western culture itself: Kafka, Mann, Proust, Joyce. Despite Trilling’s love of nineteenth-century English literature, I can’t think of any contemporary Brits that were included, except for Conrad, as part of a prelude that also included Frazer and Freud. In a world whose perception and taste were becoming far more internationalized, something that for better or worse was taken up by Trilling’s successors, this was an important step. No wonder Stanley Kubrick, who had audited this course, named Lionel Mandrake after him.

Another characteristic of modern literature that Trilling emphasized was its subversiveness. In our postmodern culture, strangely prudish as it is despite our more open sexuality, how many would still respond favorably to his refreshing late 1950s assertion that of all recent novels about love, the most genuine was Lolita — let alone take the trouble to figure out why — or even to feel the thrill and liberation of iconoclasm, even heresy? Given the darker side of the twentieth century, I’ve never been surprised that Trilling’s favorite opera was Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Yet Trilling was very much a traditionalist, a stalwart Edwardian gentleman, and the tension between this wonderful if sometimes irritating Arnoldian aspect of his personality and his fascination with cultural and moral brinksmanship taught us not only to grapple with the deeper and increasingly more complex aspects of our ever-evolving culture, but also to feel personally responsible for them.

Jack Eisenberg ’62CC
New York, NY 

 

It is absolutely beyond me why, with all the possible pictures of Lionel Trilling that Columbia Magazine could have run, we get a full-page picture of the critic with a half-smoked cigarette at his lips. The only things left out are the wisps of cigarette smoke in the air above Trilling’s head.

Maybe those who knew Trilling remember him with a cigarette. They need no photos for those memories. For the rest of us, it is less “Why We (Should) Read Trilling” and more “Now Starring at Your Local Columbia Magazine: Lionel Trilling and His Faithful Companion, Lucky Strike.”

Donald Nawi ’62LAW
Scarsdale, NY

 

Tall Tales

Camilo José Vergara’s nostalgic pictorial reminiscence of the World Trade Center in the 1970s repeats the misconception that Battery Park City was “erected on landfill extracted from the WTC site” (“The Looming Towers,” Fall 2011). Battery Park City consists of ninety-two acres, only twenty-four of which came from land excavated to build the World Trade Center. The bulk of the site came from sand dredged from the lower New York Harbor, surrounded and kept in place by an underwater rock retaining wall, which also contained the fill from the WTC. All of this work was performed by the Battery Park City Authority, the New York State–created public-benefit corporation proposed by then-governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and enacted by the state legislature in 1968. Embedded in the morgues of many newspapers, this misunderstanding of the source of the landfill has become etched in stone but does not change the facts of how Battery Park City was created.

Avrum Hyman ’54JRN
Riverdale, NY

Hyman was New York State deputy commissioner of housing and community renewal and the first director of public information of the Battery Park City Authority, serving from 1968 to 1979.  

 

I enjoyed revisiting the Twin Towers through the photography of Camilo José Vergara. It’s a pity they will not be reconstructed exactly as they stood before; the new cacophonous WTC project, entangled in endless arguments and counterarguments, will not have the same grandeur.

Piotr Kumelowski ’87SEAS
Forest Hills, NY 

 

Chemical Reaction

My memories of Havemeyer and Chandler go back further than the half-century-old recollections of William Reusch (“Letters,” Fall 2011), all the way to 1935, when Professor Harold C. Urey came into my freshman chemistry class to tell us about the recently discovered neutron that was not yet in our textbook. And I remember his heavy-water distillation column, which ran down the Chandler stairwell. We used to grab that column as we ran down the stairs to change classes.

There was a chemistry museum on the first floor of Havemeyer. When I inquired a few years ago, no one seemed to know what had happened to that valuable collection.

Saul Ricklin ’40SEAS
Bristol, RI

 

On a Mantel

A granular footnote, if I may, to your recent piece about the Poe mantel (“Ghost Upon the Floor,” Fall 2011). I was doing research in the stacks for a paper on Poe in the fall of my senior year when I found a little monograph tucked in among the larger volumes that noted appositively that the mantel had been donate to Columbia. When I inquired about its location (monograph in hand as proof, of course), the staff were unaware that we even owned it. They promised to investigate.

I returned after winter break to a letter in my mailbox from the university archivist that began with words to the effect: “Dear Mr. Baker, For some of us the new year begins with good news. We have found the Poe mantel.” As you may infer from my happy recollection, this was a very big event in my scholarly life. Thanks for reviving this memory and bringing this experience full circle for me with your piece.

Dan Baker ’76CC
Trumbull, CT

 

Racism at the Root

The letter you published from Carol Crystle in response to your story on Manning Marable is incorrect and fundamentally damaging (“Letters,” Fall 2011). Studies over the last fifty years have indicated that racism is at the root of the problem with the underclass. I suggest that the editor do more research to indicate what the true roots and causes of the problem are.

Donald McDonough ’55CC
West Palm Beach, FL

 

Not the Kingsmen?

The photo accompanying Stacey Kors’s review of Carolyn Burke’s No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf shows the French singer in 1947 at Columbia’s Maison Française with a group of young men (“She Did It Her Way,” Summer 2011). While doing research in anticipation of the Maison’s 2013 centenary, we learned that the men are not Columbia students but members of Les Compagnons de la Chanson, a popular choral group established in the 1940s that performed through the mid-1980s. They sang and recorded many songs with Piaf, most famously, “Les Trois Cloches.”

Shanny L. Peer
Director, Maison Française
Columbia University

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