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  • Editors' Introduction
  • Marta Gutman and Louis P. Nelson

This issue of Buildings & Landscapes goes to press in sad times. We send it off a week or so after the death of Pamela H. Simpson on October 4, 2011. Pam, our esteemed colleague, was a founding member of the Vernacular Architecture Forum and former editor of this journal. We are grateful to Sally McMurry, Pam's dear friend, for offering the tribute that follows this Introduction. Pam will be sorely missed.

These are also hard times for Americans who face severe economic hardship and the prospect of more to come. So many are disheartened, not only because of the loss of a job or a home but also because it seems that reason—and with it willingness to debate different points of view—has disappeared altogether from political discourse. Others are alarmed by the refusal of our national leaders to think about the historical past in terms other than the nostalgic or ideological; we watch with dismay as politicians play fast and loose with facts and invent stories that make no sense to historians.

In this season of political discontent, in this time of unmet human needs, we can ask whether writing history makes any sense. Should we set aside our scholarly work, our research, our writing, to address the pressing issues of our time? E. P. Thompson, author of the magisterial The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and a model for the activist scholar if ever there were one, answered that question in the affirmative in the early 1980s. He was sympathetic to issues that sadly remain at the top of the list of any concerned citizen of this world—the egregious effects of poverty, inequality, and prejudice on everyday people and places; the blind faith in technology as the answer to human problems; the unrelenting exercise of power by corporations, with devastating consequences on the built and natural environments; the allied, and also arrogant exercise of power by the United States and other industrialized countries at home and abroad. Thompson was concerned as any about those matters, and yet in the early 1980s he asked that attention be given to another pressing problem—what he believed to be the certain, horrific consequences of the escalation to the arms race launched by the Reagan administration. Involved in the antinuclear movement since its inception in the 1950s, he told this to a rapt audience in New York City: "All other issues must be set aside."

The meeting place, the basement of Riverside Church, suited Thompson who, although an atheist of longstanding conviction, assumed with relish the countenance of a Methodist preacher. Those privileged to hear Thompson speak in that and other crowded rooms, remember the lanky body, the gaunt face topped with a shock of white hair, the large hands grasping the lectern, and above all the voice. It rang out resonant, to fill the room with a call to connect to a world outside of the one we make for ourselves as scholars. And yet Thompson could not, did not follow the advice he tendered—to let go of what he called his "history writing"—so that he could give full attention to translating that ethical objective into much-needed, on-the-ground political practice.

Thank goodness he didn't let go. Stellar works followed, including Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (1993), published just after Thompson's untimely death. The text upended previous scholarship to couple the radical aesthetic invention of the poet William Blake, his poems and drawings, with radical religious belief and political practice. To do this, Blake, verbal and visual inventor extraordinaire, rooted his art in the everyday life of people and places. Remember, Thompson reminds us, that [End Page v] the poet who wrote the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience lived in an aural environment far richer than our own. He listened to men singing on the streets of London, while walking to work, hauling carts filled with goods, and yes, erecting buildings. Their songs, like Blake's poems, were meant to liberate the human spirit (and the human body) from the conjoined forces of capital...


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