August, like February, is a tough month for the most die-hard New Yorker. I don’t hate it, because I’d still take heat over slush any day, but something happens after the last day of July, a simultaneous setting-in of everything bad about the summer (festering garbage, grey blankets of humidity, soaking thunderstorms followed by the unforgiving ice of subway AC, the Sunday-night feeling that summer’s nearly over and you neither had as much fun nor got as much done as you’d planned, the relentless certainty that anyone blessed with both money and sense has gotten the hell out of Dodge. And although I’d love to make the case for the city in August, its sweaty slowness and relative emptiness, I’m writing this sitting in a hammock in Vermont, and I couldn’t be happier to be a few hundred or ten million miles away.
We got here last night after five hours on the trundling train, all the way up the edge of the Hudson, and now everything around me is green and buzzing with life. Of course this is slightly terrifying (I am one hundred percent the city girl in the romcom who tries to go hiking in high heels and shrieks at the sight of snakes and spiders) but it’s also peaceful and actually cool in the shade, and nothing smells like a rodent died inside a radiator. But more than anything being all alone in the country with people I love means a few days of focusing on how I feel rather than how I look (in the broadest sense), just reading and sleeping and eating and walking and swimming in a beautiful place, the wind now and again rippling through trees like a waterfall, the only version of a vacation that I ever really want.
And hammocks! Every time I’m in a hammock I think about Middlemarch, reading it (or perhaps even then re-reading it?) in my teens in the garden of a house in France, twisting my back out of shape, the old paperback edition I still have from school, its spine held together with tape, the pages buttermilk-yellow and soft like velvet under my hands and falling out in lavish chunks, tiny print scrawled all over and underlined, flopping open across my knees at my favorite scenes. Or I think about Brazil, the trip my friends and I took the day we graduated from college, almost twenty years ago, a blur now of fresh papaya and deserted beaches and eggs fried in butter, cachaça and endless bus rides and a low-level sense of being out of place and bewildered and grateful. The hammocks were everywhere in the beach towns, colorful and cheap in the markets, and I only regret being too sensible to bring one home to London. Hammocks are fundamentally not-sensible, and for that reason they are ideally suited to late summer, to self-indulgence, and all the things I’m trying to celebrate here.
I got to go back to the New-York Historical Society a few weeks ago to celebrate the opening of the new exhibition in the women’s history gallery, which focuses on the women photographers of LIFE Magazine. For my piece on the show I interviewed the show’s co-curator, and my brilliant former colleague and friend, Sarah Gordon, and we went deep on lots of the things we talked endlessly about when we worked together, about what women’s history really is, what it can do, and how to do it better.
A panel display at the start of the show offers a brief introduction to the life stories of the six photographers, but their biographies aren’t the focus of the show. I ask Gordon whether this choice, to focus on work rather than character, indicates an evolution of women’s history away from its sometimes oppressive focus on biography. She explains that while the show certainly wants to create a wider awareness of these women’s work and their names, it is not just a question of establishing individual fame. At the Center for Women’s History, the goal is “to integrate women’s history into all of history.” The exhibition therefore aims to show how the photographers’ work fit into a larger frame, how it was “integral to LIFE, to Henry Luce’s vision of America, to this sharing of images and stories about American families, politics, culture, art, race, labor,” Gordon says. “It’s about their work, their connections to these themes, to these topics, more than their own biographies. That’s the women’s history, to me.”
A Force for Good
Contingent Magazine, where I published the LIFE piece, is a great new history website put together by a group of historians including Erin Bartram, who not long ago wrote a brilliant, viral essay about what the academy has lost, and continues to lose, by continuing to train and encourage smart people for a profession that is eroding faster than icebergs under their feet. To be clear, I blame the corporatization of the university and right-wing legislatures gutting higher-education funding over the past twenty years and more for most of the current crisis, not people with the temerity to want to be scholars and teachers and to believe that should be a livable profession. Anyway, Contingent’s name nods to that crisis in “contingent” labor and also to an understanding of how history happens, and if you like what they’re doing, please do send them a few dollars to keep doing it. (For what it’s worth, they paid me more than the Atlantic online for a history piece last November.)
I hope wherever you are, your August gives you a chance to escape & breathe.