Kiosk Opener: Learning the Ropes

Novelist E.L. Doctorow leads off UC's Ropes Lecture Series

Jan 18, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Novelist E.L. Doctorow

Critics' Picks: Tuesday 23
With a list of past lecturers that includes novelists Richard Powers and Robert Coover, anthropologist and cultural critic Andrew Ross, and noted literary critics Sven Birkerts and Katherine Hayles, it's hard to believe that the Ropes Lecture Series is only in its second year. But believe it or not, that is the lineup of intellectual all-stars who descended on the University of Cincinnati last winter to discuss the year's topic, "Science, Technology and the Future of Literature."

There is no sign of a sophomore slump this year, as the 2001 Ropes is bringing an equally boffo cast of novelists, journalists and critics to discuss the topic of "Literature and the Public Intellectual." Who knows if the great minds at UC planned it this way, but by kicking off the lectures in January, the topic of the public intellectual will serve as the perfect compliment to the two biggest anti-intellectual events of the year: Super Bowl XXXV and the inauguration of George "Dubya." I'm taking the Giants by 10, by the way.

At this point you might be asking yourself, "What is a public intellectual?" or "Didn't I see 50 or so of them at Sitwell's having coffee last night?" The answer to the latter question is "maybe." But the first question can best be answered not by what the public intellectuals do, but by where you find them. The answer is, of course, "On TV."

In the old days you could sometimes find them during the last three minutes of The Tonight Show.

Nowadays they sometimes show up on Charlie Rose's program, although they should by no means be confused with Rose himself — who will at every opportunity change the subject just as soon as he has hit upon something interesting — and even sometimes on Larry King. Otherwise, they usually can be found sipping martinis on super yachts with all their smart and sexy friends.

This year's Ropes lineup — novelist E.L. Doctorow, journalist Christopher Hitchens, critics Bruce Robbins and Wilson Moses and novelist Francine Prose — presents a special problem. Unlike last year, when UC invited The Gutenberg Elegies author, Sven Birkerts, to act as anti-technology pug to the rest of its more technologically inclined speakers, there is no one on this year's list to actually speak for the anti-intellectual. It's just a thought, but I am in town. And I live close to campus. Though I won't take a cent less than Robbins is getting.

What follows is a brief introduction to this year's Ropes lecturers. In most cases, I haven't presumed to preview the speakers particular lecture topics; I've just offered some basic background information. The series is sure to be illuminating, plus there will be arguments and stuff and someone's bound to get nasty. The events listed are free and open to the public.

E.L. Doctorow
Realms of the Literary Conscience

8 p.m. Tuesday

E.L Doctorow is a rare figure in the publishing business: a best-selling novelist who writes challenging literary fiction. Doctorow, who just turned 70 this month, published his ninth and most recent novel, City of God, last year. The novel concerns, in part, a New York City novelist who discovers that a large brass cross that once hung above the altar of an Episcopal church has mysteriously appeared on the roof of an Upper West Side synagogue. As in other Doctorow novels, historical figures mix with fictional characters. Who else but Doctorow — other than Don DeLillo, maybe — would invite Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Sinatra into their novel?

Reading Doctorow's prose has often been described as a cinematic experience. So it should come as no surprise that his novels have fared well on the screen. The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg family, was filmed as Daniel in 1983; Billy Bathgate was filmed in 1991; and Ragtime, Doctorow's most beloved novel, reached the screen in 1981.

Christopher Hitchens
Accidental Politicians: Authors as Public Citizens

Feb. 6, 8 p.m.

Readers of The Nation and Vanity Fair should be familiar with Christopher Hitchens, who is a regular columnist for those magazines. The Washington-based, British-born journalist also regularly appears in at least a half-dozen other papers, making him not only one of the most astute commentators on politics, but also one of the most prolific. In recent issues of The Nation, in his column "Minority Report," Hitchens has criticized the appointment of Colin Powell as Secretary of State and has questioned the notion that the U.S. needs a ballistic missile defense system as protection against the severely impoverished North Korea. His books include Imperial Spoils: The Case of the Parthenon Marbles (1989) and No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (2000). His collection of essays, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere is being published this month.

Bruce Robbins
The Sweatshop Sublime: Criticism, Action, and Ordinariness

Feb. 8, 8 p.m.

Bruce Robbins is a former editor of The Social Text. Several years ago Robbins and co-editor Andrew Ross were duped by a bogus essay arguing that quantum physics and postmodern philosophy made a nice pair. Apparently they don't. Anyway that shouldn't stop you from hearing Robbins lecture. He has written extensively on the role of the intellectual in the new global economy.

Wilson Moses
Economies of Knowledge in the Harlem Renaissance: Mythologies of Progress and Decline

Feb. 22

In books such as The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 and Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, Penn State history professor Wilson Moses has discussed black political and intellectual figures ranging from W.E.B. Dubois to Marcus Garvey and Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan. His most recent book is Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (1999).

Francine Prose
I Know Why the Caged Bird Can't Read: My Life as a Public Intellectual

Feb. 26, 8 p.m.

According to National Book Award nominee Francine Prose, the reason the "caged bird can't read" (why students do not develop an appreciation for literature in high school) is because they are subjected to the "manipulative melodramas" of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and "sentimental, middlebrow favorites," such as John Knowles' A Separate Peace and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Prose's "Caged Bird" originally appeared in Harper's. It will be interesting to see how she shapes the piece for the topic of public intellectual. Come prepared to hear some of your favorite — or most despised — books take a sound thumping. Francine Prose's new novel, Blue Angel, will be published in March.

All lectures will be held in McMicken Hall, Room 127, on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. All events are free and open to the public