The Hamlet Fire, 1991

Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon

A deadly fire raced through the Imperial Food Products factory in Hamlet, North Carolina on the morning of September 3, 1991. As the fire raged, employees found themselves trapped behind chain-locked exits, which led to the deaths of 25 people. The fire was big news. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and I can remember news reports and descriptions of desperate people frantically trying to escape.

Historian Bryan Simon was in a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina in 1991 and he often drove through Hamlet on his way to visit the research archives at the University of South Carolina. Birthplace of  jazz great John Coltrane, prize-winning reporter Tom Wicker, and former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl wide receiver (and current Eagles radio color commentator) Mike Quick, Hamlet had been a prosperous railroad junction through the first half of the 20th century until the railroads went into decline. By the 1980s, the city government and its inhabitants were desperate to bring new businesses to town. It was during this time that a Pennsylvania company processing chicken parts into chicken tenders moved to Hamlet.

Bryant Simon’s most recent book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017), as the subtitle indicates, is about much more than a tragic fire. Instead, Simon uses Hamlet as a microcosm to examine the larger economic and political forces that have transformed the United States. Where policy makers were once focused on creating an economy that produced high manufacturing wages, starting in the 1970s they increasingly turned their attention to an economic model of low wages and cheap products. The fire at Imperial Food Products are part of this story.

I spoke to Bryant Simon on January 23, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

Vikings Visit Minnesota in 1362


Well, not really, but that’s a story that had significant purchase in early 20th century Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish immigrant discovered a buried stone with runic letters and the date 1362. The archaic Scandinavian script described a fishing party that returned to its camp to find “10 men red with blood and dead.”

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362. [Translation by Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved]

The news of the apparent visitation of fourteenth century Scandinavians to the great state of Minnesota was enthusiastically received by their latter day heirs. With so many immigrants entering the United States, it was reassuring to learn that these norsemen had staked a claim to the United States more than 100 years before Columbus. Better yet, they had baptized the soil with their own blood, consecrating it as holy ground.

As the authenticity of the “Kensington Rune Stone” came under question, supporters dismissed much of the evidence produced by pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers. Though the scientific consensus has clearly declared the stone a fake, books are still written “proving” its authenticity. In Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, historian and religion scholar David Krueger investigates the century-long story arc of this cultural artifact. He explores the passion for the Rune Stone among Scandinavian and, later, Catholics, who were intent on establishing their rightful place in the American community.

Beyond the history of the Rune Stone itself, Krueger’s work provides valuable insights on the history of immigrant communities and the ways they seek to blend their ancestral histories into a new and imagined cultural landscape. Readers will find the themes of Myths of the Rune Stone illuminating in this time of increased tension and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration.

I spoke with David Krueger on November 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

(For suggestions for how to use the book in a class setting, visit the book website at

—Fred Rowland

Gaming on the edge

Adrienne Shaw

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Concepts like identity, identification, and representation are thrown around pretty loosely when people try to explain the influence of popular media on individuals and groups. Categories like race, gender, sexuality, and class are widely recognized, broadly applicable and, because of this, they are often invoked as a substitute for more nuanced thinking about how individuals relate to media, whether TV, film, or digital games.

  • Do gay men like particular TV shows because they include gay characters?
  • Are women more likely to watch football now that there are (a few) female commentators?
  • Why would women play violent, misogynistic video games?

In her new book, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Adrienne Shaw complicates this approach by studying “representation in in a way that takes into account the fluidity, performativity, and contextuality of identity categories.” In a series of interviews with individuals from marginalized groups, Shaw, an avid digital game player herself, attempts to situate game playing within the overall lived experiences of her subjects. Through this indirect approach, she hoped to gain a better understanding of how, when, and why representation mattered. One of her main goals in writing this book is to help change the way academic and business researchers study identity, identification, and representation. I spoke with Adrienne Shaw about her new book on July 11, 2015.

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—Fred Rowland

Kathleen Grady Talks Sustainability

Kathleen Grady

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On Friday, March 6, Temple University is hosting the Tri-State Sustainability Symposium (conference topics) at the Temple Performing Arts Center and Alter Hall, sponsored by the Delaware Valley Green Building Association and many area businesses and organizations. Now in its fifth year, this is one of the regional events in which Temple University’s Office of Sustainability participates. Temple University established the Office of Sustainability under the directorship of Sandra J. McDade on July 1, 2008, in response to the recommendations of the Sustainability Task Force, appointed by then-President Ann Weaver Hart in 2007. Kathleen Grady became the second director of the Office of Sustainability in November 2012. Her office is charged with fulfilling the tripartite mission to “advance sustainable academic initiatives and research, create a sustainable campus environment and culture and…improve outreach and engagement on sustainability issues.”

I first became aware of the Office of Sustainability through the Library Prize for Undergraduate Research on Sustainability & the Environment, now in its fifth year, for which the director served as one of the judges. I also noticed that Temple University was sponsoring, initiating or participating in many environmentally-related events and programs. Finally, as discussions of the new library proceeded, I wondered whether new construction was carefully planned for sustainability. I was curious to know whether the Office of Sustainability was simply an excercise in public relations or a concerted effort to address its ambitious mission.

Though I have no experience in community or institutional planning, I came away from this interview impressed by the level of involvement by the Office of Sustainability in the life and operations of the university. Each year the office takes a Greenhouse Gas Inventory, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 30% by 2030 (base year 2006). Each year funds are appropriated to improve the sustainability of present buildings, and the Office of Sustainability is involved in the planning of new buildings, such as the future home of the Temple University Libraries.

I spoke to Kathleen Grady on December 5, 2014 on the role of the Office of Sustainability at Temple University.

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—Fred Rowland

Pop Culture Freaks!

Dustin Kidd image

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It seems appropriate that I should be writing this on Black Friday, that frenzied day following Thanksgiving that kicks off the Christmas – Hanakah – Kwanza shopping extravaganza. Dustin Kidd published Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society in 2014 with Westview Press. It’s a hybrid work that combines original research, theoretical and methodological perspectives, and some of the features you might find in a textbook, like infographics and recommended readings. Professor Kidd’s focus is on the popular culture generated by the concentrated corporate mass media, whose revenue model is dependent on rising consumption.

One insight that I found particularly striking in this interview was Professor Kidd’s analysis of the changes in TV programming over the past 25 years. In his opinion, sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s – All in the Family, The Jeffersons – prepared young people for their eventual entry into the work world. By contrast, today’s programs prepare young people to fulfill their role as consumers. As the retail sector has become more important to the overall health of the economy, everyone must be encouraged to consume. Corporate popular culture creates the matrix within which individuals are conditioned to continually seek out new products, new adventures, and new identities. Shop until you drop.

Dustin Kidd analyzes the role that race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability play in popular culture, not only in the actual cultural artifacts, like TV programs and films, but also in their creation and then consumption. The fracturing of identity, the privileging of some identities over others, and the yearning for wholeness engendered by this phantasmagoria of identity turns us all into freaks. As our sense of inadequacy ebbs and flows, we search out something to buy in order to feel temporarily at peace. But it doesn’t last long.

I spoke to Dustin Kidd about his new book Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society on November 18, 2014.

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—Fred Rowland

Media, Pennsylvania: March 8, 1971

John Raines and family

John Raines teaching

In 2013 whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents and confirmed a vast National Security Agency spying program. Though there had been significant revelations before Snowden’s leaks, this new information made it impossible for the US government to deny the international scope of its intrusions into the privacy of individuals, organizations, and governments.

43 years earlier a group of eight middle class antiwar activists performed a similar public service, releasing internal FBI documents that revealed a pattern of abuse by J. Edgar Hoover and federal agents. The full story is told in a new book (Betty Medsger’s The Burglary) and a documentary film (1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton), both released in 2014. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as they called themselves, burglarized the Media, Pennsylvania office of the FBI in the hopes of finding evidence of illegal FBI surveillance and disruption of the antiwar movement.

J. Edgar Hoover’s citadel was seemingly impregnable, built by decades of careful public relations and a comprehensive intelligence network. Though there was near certainty among antiwar activists and other protest groups of FBI malfeasance, there was no tangible evidence. After surveilling the Philadelphia FBI office and determining that it was too closely guarded, the Commission to Investigate the FBI looked to the FBI’s suburban offices for an opportunity.

After months of casing the Media, Pennsylvania office, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI made its move on the night of the first historic Joe Frazier – Muhammad Ali fight, March 8, 1971. By sunrise the next day, the Citizens’ Commission had eight large suitcases of documents – the full contents of the Media FBI filing cabinets – secured in an isolated farmhouse, waiting to be organized and analyzed. Hundreds of FBI agents were assigned to investigate the Media break-in, but no one was ever charged with the crime. The disclosures that resulted from the Media burglary provided concrete evidence of illegal FBI activities.

John and Bonnie Raines were members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. John Raines, now professor emeritus, has been at Temple University since he arrived from the Union Theological Seminary in 1966. John Raines spoke to me about his experiences with the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI on October 2, 2014.

—Fred Rowland

Life and teachings of Jamgön Mipam

Douglas Duckworth image








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Jamgön Mipam (1846 – 1912) is a representative of the Nyingma school, or “old school,” of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma trace their roots to the earliest entry of Buddhism into Tibet in the eighth century of the Common Era by Indian Buddhists, including luminaries Santaraksita and Padmasambhava. The “new” schools – Jonang, Geluk, Sakya, and Kagyu – that developed from the eleventh century viewed the Nyingma with suspicion, charging that Nyimgma scriptures were not based on Indian originals.

Mipam’s great strength was his ability to synthesize currents from the different new schools into the Nyingma tradition. As a monastic who spent considerable time in meditation and a scholar versed in the Middle Way, logic, poetics, medicine, astrology, and tantra, Mipam was well-placed to bridge the gap between the scriptural and meditative approaches to enlightenment. His writings cover a vast range of topics and genres, all the more surprising considering that he spent so much time in meditative retreat.

Religion professor Douglas Duckworth is a specialist on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. His 2011 book Jamgon Mipam: His Life and Teachings fills a need for an introduction on this important scholar, polymath, and mystic. Organized into three parts, it reviews Mipam’s life and the Buddhist traditions and teachers from which he drew, explores Mipam’s doctrines and philosophy, and then provides selected translations of Mipam’s works.

I spoke to Professor Douglas Duckworth on September 22, 2014 about his book Jamgön Mipam: His Life and Teachings, published in 2011 with Shambhala Publications.

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—Fred Rowland

Lion and Leopard, a novel

Nathaniel Popkin

Nathaniel Popkin








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“The pleasure is in my hand as I draw his features. I particularly like this silent stirring, the swelling of the air between my hands and my eyes and my eyes and my subject, and I savor it much as the captain lingers over a fiery red pepper, which he eats in judicious little bites right down to the stem.” John Lewis Krimmel on board the Sumatra, sailing from Rotterdam, August 11, 1818  [from Lion and Leopard]

“It took me some time to to digest the deception. Nay, it should be called a thievery. Whatever Krimmel’s point, whether to denigrate me or my Museum, or perhaps, the practice of democracy as some foreigners are inclined to do, I realized my son had been right to warn me about the German.” Charles Willson Peale outside the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 10th and Chestnut Streets, September 25, 1818  [from Lion and Leopard]


John Lewis Krimmel drowned in a Millpond near Germantown, not far from the farm of Charles Willson Peale, on July 15, 1821 at the age of 35. A genre painter, he was at the height of his artistic powers at the time of his death. His life and death served as the inspiration for Nathaniel Popkin’s new book Lion and Leopard, a novel that illuminates the world of early 19th century Philadelphia.

America’s first city at the time, Philadelphia was also the epicenter of its art world and a place that witnessed debates, controversies, and rivalries that contributed to the birth of an American culture. Sandwiched between the revolutionary generation and the coming of the industrial revolution, Popkin’s Philadelphia is a rich brew of men and women, family strife, youthful passion, foreign emigres, and institutional intrigue.

It was a time in which the young United States was still in a very fluid state and anything was possible, it was time when three youths from the small town of Easton, Pennsylvania set off for big city Philadelphia, with dreams of writing a book on the American masters and seeing the world.

On the 193rd anniversary of John Lewis Krimmel’s untimely death, I spoke to Nathaniel Popkin about his novelistic debut, LIon and Leopard.

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—Fred Rowland

Remaking women’s magazines

Brooke Erin Duffy image







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Newspapers and magazines are struggling in the 21st century. Twenty years after the launch of the World Wide Web, many influential publications of the previous century have folded. Readers have many more choices and advertisers have found new channels to reach them. Advertising revenues from traditional print publications have plunged.

For her new book Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age, Brooke Erin Duffy interviewed over thirty industry professionals, engaged in participant observation, and paid close attention to the industry trade literature. She focused her attention on the production side, attempting to understand how the digital environment is influencing professional and organizational identities.

The routines developed around producing a glossy monthly magazine have shifted towards the urgent, ephemeral 24/7 digital cycle. The magazine is no longer an object but a brand. In addition to the traditional print magazine and its online surrogates, some magazines now have YouTube channels, TV shows, and retail products. Journalistic writing is increasingly being sidelined for prose that is more amenable to search engine optimization and advertisers. Whither the magazine from here?

I spoke to Brooke Erin Duffy about her new book Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age on July 9, 2014.

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—Fred Rowland

What is spirituality?








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Do a search for spirituality in Google’s NGRAM Viewer, an online tool that graphs the incidence of words from the Google Book corpus, and you will find that in and around 1980 this word spiked. The rise is more or less consistent with the increasing appearance of the word spirituality in book and journal titles (pre-1980 books / post-1980 books; pre-1980 journals / post-1980 journals) in Temple University’s collection. The pattern appears in both popular and scholarly publications. About this time the category of “spiritual but not religious” became familiar to pollsters of religious attitudes and trends. What explains this sudden emergence of spirituality? Did anything really emerge, or was this just a definitional shift? Was spirituality colonizing new territory? Or is spirituality a “glow” word that makes everyone feel good but signifies, well, very little?

In her new book, The Ecology of Spirituality: Meanings, Virtues, and Practices in a Post-Religious Age, Lucy Bregman investigates this phenomenon. She looks at the broad changes in religion and intellectual culture that preceeded the blossoming (or metastasizing) of spirituality, and then describes spirituality’s career over the past three decades. I interviewed Lucy Bregman on July 3, 2014.

[This is the second interview I have done with Lucy Bregman. Listen to our discussion on her previous book: Preaching Death.]

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—Fred Rowland