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#224: No Place Is Perfect

When Thomas More wrote Utopia in the 16th century, he ensured that all those who would seek out a perfect society, inspired by his book, would have to answer for the literal Greek meaning of its title: “no place.” So, has there ever been a utopia? It depends on whom you ask. Adrian Shirk, who joined Smarty Pants several years ago to talk about her previous book, takes utopia to mean communities that “have intentionally understood themselves as world-building a way out of a death-dealing system, in the service of making, if only briefly, some idea of heaven on earth—not just for themselves, but however foolhardy, for all of humankind.” From that definition—and from the bop by Belinda Carlisle, of course—comes the title of her new book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, an exploration of moments and movements in American utopianism then, today, and tomorrow, from the Shakers to the rebuilding of the Bronx to a Waffle House by the side of the road.


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Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.


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Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

More Episodes

8/12/2022

#243: When Science Is Not the Answer

In pursuit of the natural laws of the universe, human beings have accomplished remarkable things. We’ve outlined the principles of gravity and thermodynamics. We’ve built enormous machines to dig into the deepest parts of the Earth, to understand what happens at the shortest quantum distances, and equally large machines to take pictures of the most distant parts of the cosmos. Still, there remain a number of foundational gaps in our knowledge—gaps that have allowed some wild ideas to take root. Some scientists hypothesize that, with every decision we make, our universe forks into multiverses, that consciousness arises from the quantum movements of microtubules, that the universe itself is conscious, or that there is this cat in a box and not in a box at the same time. These ideas, and related big questions about the nature of the universe, are the subject of particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s new book, Existential Physics. In it, she argues that many of these far-out theories, put forward without evidence, are on par with religious belief. Physics, she contends, does not yet provide the answers to all of our questions—and it’s doubtful that it ever will.Go beyond the episode:Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest QuestionsAnd her previous book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics AstrayMore questions (and answers) on Hossenfelder’s blog, Backreaction, and YouTube Channel, Science Without the Gobbledygook (or, you can try your hand at parsing her scholarly papers)The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are indeed impressiveFor another physicist’s perspective, listen to our interview with Stephon Alexander about his experience as a self-identified outsider in the fieldTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe:iTunes•Stitcher•Google Play•AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
8/5/2022

#242: Mob Music

Long before Wynton Marsalis arrived in the plush halls of Lincoln Center, jazz was often performed in far more dangerous venues. Greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday found their footing on the stages of America’s most notorious vice districts, where big players in the mob, such as Al Capone and Mickey Cohen, called the shots. In his new book, Dangerous Rhythms, journalist T. J. English explores the complexities of this corner of the underworld, where venues like the Cotton Club explicitly upheld the racial dynamics of Jim Crow America while simultaneously providing Black musicians with otherwise unavailable opportunities. But the emerging civil rights movement disrupted this “glorified plantation system,” as English calls it, just as it eventually upended both the music and the mob.Go beyond the episode:T. J. English’s Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the UnderworldPeruse his back catalog of books on organized crimeListen to a playlist of songs to accompany the episode, and the bookYou can still have a drink and listen to some tunes at Chicago’s Green Mill, which has a shrine to Al CaponeOther surviving clubs include the Village Vanguard in New York City and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit (though beer is no longer 26 cents!)Listen to Louis Armstrong playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band on “Canal Street Blues,” recorded in Richmond, Indiana, on April 5, 1923—and listen to more early jazz recordings now in the public domainThe song featured in this episode is “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” recorded by Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars in Chicago on December 9, 1927Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe:iTunes•Stitcher•Google Play•AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
7/29/2022

#241: The Original Influencer

Picture the first “It Girl,” and you’re likely to imagine young, fun Clara Bow, sex symbol of the Roaring ’20s. But behind the frame is the woman who wrote It: Elinor Glyn, an English-gentlewoman-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter whose romantic novels inspired so much of the era’s glamorous aesthetic. Hilary Hallett, a professor of history at Columbia University, brings Glyn back into the spotlight in her new biography, Inventing the It Girl. Glyn’s story, like that of so many of her heroines—and unlike her contemporaries—begins after her marriage in 1892 to a spendthrift noble with a gambling problem. The blockbuster success of her scandalous 1907 sex novel, Three Weeks, catapulted her to literary stardom and, as it so often does, to Hollywood, where she worked on dozens of films and styled silent-era superstars like Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Hallett joins the podcast to discuss how Glyn paved the way for a century of sexual, romantic, and psychological independence.Go beyond the episode:Hilary Hallett’s Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early HollywoodWatch It, the “Elinor Glyn–Clarence Badger Production” that made Clara Bow a star in 1927Meet more neglected Hollywood women: Dorothy Arzner remains the most prolific woman studio director in the history of cinema; start with Merrily We Go to Hell from 1932Jean Smart will play a mostly accurate version of Elinor Glyn in Damien Chazelle’s upcoming film Babylon, about the decadence of the Roaring ’20sVisit our episode page for more photographs of Glyn, including her scintillating turn as the Tiger QueenTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe:iTunes•Stitcher•Google Play•AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes!