Persis Charles

BA, Bryn Mawr College. MA, Brown University. PhD, Tufts University. Special interest in modern social and women’s history, with particular emphasis on British and French history. SLC, 1977–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

First-Year Studies: Leisure and Danger in History and Literature

The interaction between work and play has taken various forms in history. Our project in this course will be to examine the changes and continuities in the idea of leisure. Beginning in early modern Europe, we will trace the concept up to the present—concentrating on Europe and America and reflecting on subjects such as travel and the pursuit of the exotic, theatricality, consumerism, luxury, and display. In the 19th century, leisure became democratized, and an anxious debate grew louder. What were the implications of making leisure available to masses of people? From romance novels to cheap liquor, from shopping to the cinema, new avenues of leisure aroused both fear and excitement. Moralists felt a need to police both public and private space and to reassert the primacy of work, thrift, and duty. We will study them and the various forms of accommodations and resistance that met their efforts. Class, ethnicity, gender, and geography all acted to structure people’s access to leisure. We will look at struggles over race, gender, and popular culture; the way certain groups became designated as providers of entertainment; or how certain locations were created as places of pleasure. To set the terms of the debate, we will begin with some 18th-century readings about the theatre and the market, the salon and the court. Readings will include work of Montesquieu, Flaubert, Wilde, Wharton, George Eliot, and Fitzgerald. In addition, we will read works of nonfiction that show how leisure helped to create new forms of subjectivity and interiority. Students will be encouraged to work on conference topics linking leisure to a variety of subjects such as childhood and education, the construction of racial identities, or the changing nature of parenthood as birth control became more and more widely available, to name just a few areas. Potentially, this course—through the study of complex oppositions such as need and desire, purpose and aimlessness, the necessary and gratuitous—can give us a sense of the dizzying questions about life’s very meaning that present themselves when we aim at a life of leisure.

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Previous courses

1919

Fall

The period l9l9-l920 saw the eruption of numerous civil disorders: riots, strikes, new social and cultural movements, and political parties. New patterns of production and consumption were also beginning. While all these were responses to long-established tendencies in economic life, in class and racial conflict, and national liberation struggles, it is not a coincidence that so many appeared within a few months of each other. They stemmed from the disruption and trauma of the war, which transformed all existing trends in ways that reverberated throughout the interwar period and beyond. The goal of this course is to examine, from a global perspective, the possibilities for good and ill that were opened up. It is clear, for example, that the war disrupted major tendencies in the socialist and workers‘ movements. The Russian Revolution and the rise of international communism marked a break with important parts of the traditional left and seemed to some to have established a vital and exciting new kind of polity; to others, a frightening and aggressive new enemy of civilization. We will study the debates over the Soviet Union in the light of these profound disagreements. It is also clear that the war meant new directions in world capitalism. One of the most significant was the unleashing of American economic power. We will study how developments in the US oil and automotive industries impinged on Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa in the search for petroleum and rubber. At the same time, we will learn how this economic buildup enabled capitalism to replicate itself through the creation of such industries as advertising, which took on a new vitality in this period. Its seductive images of individual desires and personal fulfillment permitted it both to shadow and to rival the collective movements that worked for social change. Conflict over social change occurred on many fronts. Movements of national liberation in the British Empire were now placed in the context of the gradual eclipse of British power, even as Britain emerged victorious from the war and as a major power in redrawing maps of many contested terrains. Against this background, we will look at British efforts to deal with popular aspirations in India, Ireland, and Palestine with the outbursts of violence that often characterized state action in these matters. Other important subjects include the movements for gender and sex equality and justice for workers and African Americans. They had to face a long-running 19th-century social Darwinist ideology, which the war had made only more toxic as witness the reception given to returning black soldiers expecting a better life, the restrictions on US immigration, and the appeal of racism, anti-Semitism, and many other ethnic prejudices to wide sectors of opinion. In the field of sex and gender, new movements of protest and affirmation grew up while old ones declined. The goal of women’s suffrage having been achieved, the suffragist style of feminism began to disappear along with its liberal, rationalist, and parliamentary values. The war had done much to destroy them in all parts of the political spectrum and had cleared the way for many new cultural phenomena, including fascism, artistic modernism, and the emergence of a new gay people's consciousness, to name just a few. Cities such as Paris, New York, and Berlin offer case studies of the vibrant subcultures that flourished during these years. Course readings and topics will include: the John Dos Passos novel Nineteen-Nineteen; Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Rudyard Kipling’s short story Mary Postgate; Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919 on the Treaty of Versailles; selections from Mein Kampf; literature on the steel strike of 1919 in the United States; the 1919 Amritsar Bazaar massacre in India; Pan-Africanism and American racial disturbances of that year and the responses of such people as Garvey and DuBois; the coming of the private automobile and its relationship to highway construction, suburbanization, and the onrush of the extractive industries into Liberia, for example, searching for cheap rubber; the rise of public relations and the “engineering of consent,” as it was called by a founder of modern advertising, and how it worked both in political propaganda and in the sale of commodities; and the emergence of new styles of sexual expression. For written work, students will select subjects from the syllabus and explore them more deeply in a few short essays, using extra reading in consultation with the instructor.

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Effort, Merit, Privilege

Spring

This course is a history of ideas and practices connected to the notion of advancement by merit rather than by inherited status or wealth. This comparatively modern idea is more complex than it may appear. We will focus on four epochs in which personal merit came increasingly to the fore. The first is the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon. With the cry, “The career open to talent,” and the abolition of feudal privilege, the revolutionaries helped to further the development of individualism, self-assertion, and personal ambition while, at the same time, implicating the citizen more and more deeply in the apparatus of the state. The second era will be 1859 to 1870 in Britain, from the publication of The Origin of Species with the anxieties it provoked about the struggle for existence, to the education act of 1870. That act, which followed a major liberalization of the suffrage, set popular education on its feet as a national project. We will study the right to vote and get an education as the means by which the culture created marks of merit. We will also look at the struggles of those excluded, such as women and the very poor. The next period is the aftermath of the American Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. The slaves, now free—what was to become of them? Should they compete in society at large, or was it their lot to be kept permanently in a kind of quasi-slavery without the right to vote or go to school? The last period brings us up to the present with its many instances of meritocracy. The postwar foundation of the welfare state will be examined in the light of the many challenges to it, especially from the forces promoting inequality that coexist with unprecedented opportunities for talented individuals. We will look at the problems this poses for education, wealth, and social well-being. This course is best for students with some previous exposure to history or the social sciences.

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Effort, Merit, Privilege - Graduate

Spring

This course is a history of ideas and practices connected to the notion of advancement by merit rather than by inherited status or wealth. This comparatively modern idea is more complex than it may appear. We will focus on four epochs in which personal merit came increasingly to the fore. The first is the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon. With the cry, “The career open to talent,” and the abolition of feudal privilege, the revolutionaries helped to further the development of individualism, self-assertion, and personal ambition while, at the same time, implicating the citizen more and more deeply in the apparatus of the state. The second era will be 1859 to 1870 in Britain, from the publication of The Origin of Species with the anxieties it provoked about the struggle for existence, to the education act of 1870. That act, which followed a major liberalization of the suffrage, set popular education on its feet as a national project. We will study the right to vote and get an education as the means by which the culture created marks of merit. We will also look at the struggles of those excluded, such as women and the very poor. The next period is the aftermath of the American Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. The slaves, now free—what was to become of them? Should they compete in society at large, or was it their lot to be kept permanently in a kind of quasi-slavery without the right to vote or go to school? The last period brings us up to the present with its many instances of meritocracy. The postwar foundation of the welfare state will be examined in the light of the many challenges to it, especially from the forces promoting inequality that coexist with unprecedented opportunities for talented individuals. We will look at the problems this poses for education, wealth, and social well-being. This course is best for students with some previous exposure to history or the social sciences.

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Good to Think With: The Culture of Food

Fall

Drawing on perspectives from the historical past and the present day, this course will focus on the social and cultural aspects of how we grow and consume food. We will explore issues such as how food production and presentation have changed over time and how different consumption patterns have affected identity and sociability. An example of this would be the rivalry between wheat and corn that dogged world civilization for centuries, influencing such issues as how bread was made, what constituted the best diet for convicts, and of what material communion wafers should be made. We will look at how authors shape narratives about food, social change, conflict, and accommodation. Subjects of study will include the early modern trade in coffee, tea, and spices; the voyages to the New World and the attendant disruptions of various populations; the effects of the French Revolution; the Irish potato famine; and Hitler’s and Stalin’s policies of imposing famine on conquered peoples. We will examine the role of science and modernity in creating the agricultural systems that provide us with our food. This will include a look at agribusiness, its friends and enemies, and various possible alternatives to it. The problem posed by the overabundance of food and food wastage will be addressed.

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