Two faculty members in the history department and one in landscape architecture have written books that have been named to the shortlist for the Oregon Literary Arts 2022 Book Awards.
The book awards honor the state’s most accomplished writers in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, young readers, and graphic literature. The three UO nominees are nominated in the general non-fiction category. The winners of each category will be announced on April 25.
Fashion that has helped define American culture
“Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture,” by Annelise Heinz, Assistant Professor and Historian of Modern American History, examines the role the Chinese tile-based game has played in shaping society modernized American culture of the 1920s, in defining ethnic identities during the Great Depression and after World War II, and in shaping Chinese-American and Jewish-American cultures.
The obsession with mahjong in the 1920s was an intense fad. Much of the publicity that aired it promoted it as an exciting and exotic pastime.
“It became so popular in part because of the ideas associated with Chinese culture, which resonated with a predominantly white American audience, attached to the otherness and vaguely informed ideas of an ancient Chinese royal court,” said said Heinz. “There was a whole performance element around the game; white women dressed in Chinese-inspired costumes, trying on an alternate persona they imagined embodying cosmopolitanism and pre-modern luxury, which contrasted with a modernized, machine-driven, multiracial society. Mahjong has helped resolve some of these tensions, I submit, in this cultural context.
Variations of the game have appeared everywhere mahjong is played, including American-only versions. The game picked up again 30 years later among Jewish American women, a segment of the population that was becoming commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s at four times the national average.
Heinz says the popularity of mahjong served as a “lifeline” for young mothers in new communities who had often recently left the workforce, building on the popularity of mahjong in Jewish summer vacation communities. .
“What I hope people take away from my book is that everyday people make culture,” Heinz said. “It doesn’t happen all at once. It is not only related to abstract historical changes and massive changes. These changes are created and experienced by individuals like you and me, by people whose daily lives are not often written about and captured in archives.
“Watching a game and the rituals people incorporate into their lives is a way to understand the importance of individuals in shaping the world we live in.”
More Than Flavors: Hops and Community in Oregon
“Hops: Historic Photographs of the Oregon Hopscape,” by Kenneth Helphand, Philip H. Knight Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture, is both a narrative that includes oral histories and a lavishly illustrated collection of more than 80 historic photographs from Oregon Archives. The book describes both the landscape of the hopyards and the social history of the hop harvest, an annual event that transcends ethnic groups and class.
“My initial interest was in the landscape; what does a “hopscape” look like and how did it get there? While doing the research, I discovered a social and cultural history of hops,” Helphand said. “Fall hop picking was done by hand by tens of thousands of people in the Willamette Valley. Anyone over the age of 70 in Oregon probably picked hops before harvesting was mechanized in the 1950s.”
The “agritecture” of the hopyards – the striking geometry of the emerald poles, string and garland – is visible to anyone walking past a field where hops are grown. But the story of why hops are grown where they are, how they are harvested, and what they were like before flavoring one of the world’s most popular drinks is less well known.
“In the early part of the 20th century, non-Native American residents of Oregon were largely first-generation individuals,” Helphand said. “Hops picking was a remarkably democratizing experience. Everyone has chosen. There are depictions of the banker and the farmer picking regardless of income or ethnicity. Hop harvesting has become a meeting ground, similar to how parks and the beach can be a meeting ground.
Helphand said his book is a commemoration of an activity that was hard work but had an almost summer camp-like quality. After picking each day, people enjoyed movies and dancing. Courtship displays, too, have begun among the hop rows.
Helphand notes that the hop-growing community even continues in printing the book itself.
“I gave a talk to the Oregon Hop Growers Association in someone’s barn/cellar outside of Hubbard and two weeks later the hop growers said they would help pay to get printed the book,” he said. “From Portland to Grants Pass, there is a connection with hops.”
A suicidal and fragile democracy in Shanghai
“The Suicide of Miss Xi: Democracy and Disenchantment in the Chinese Republic”, by Bryna Goodman, professor and historian of modern China, is based on a Shanghai court case from the 1920s following the suicide of a woman in a newspaper office, the new Chinese stock markets and changing ideas about gender, democracy and foreign imperialism.
“Suicide has been understood as suicide by revenge. The defendant was pressuring Xi Shangzhen to be his concubine,” Goodman said. “Xi was not a potential concubine (i.e. a purchasable wife), but she belonged to the emerging and confusing ‘new woman’ category, which created new vulnerabilities for women in the spaces of work. The case made me think about issues of money, gender and the city in a modernizing China.
Goodman said her book opens up a living, transnational Chinese public domain to people who may not know Chinese history. The democratic visions and social formations of early 20th century China, when the country was configured as a republic, may come as a surprise.
“It’s important to see the possibilities, the contradictions of democracy under semi-colonial constraints,” she said. “Some assume that China evolved from an imperial system to the authoritarian one-party system that exists today. and gender ideas in the public domain.
Goodman used a combination of sources, including print media; criminal records; British, French and Japanese archives; and Xi’s own writings to unravel the complicated history of the case and its political undercurrents.
“Xi was a number,” Goodman said. “His traces help to shed light on the formation of urban political identity in China. When you follow a case and see the messy workings of how power relations work or don’t work, that’s a different kind of engagement with history, a window into the startling possibilities of the times.
— By Kelley Christensen, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation