Off the Shelf: Book reviews from the editors of Research/Penn State

book cover for “Shadow of the Racketeer”

Typecasting Labor

Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor(University of Illinois Press)

In the late 1930s, as organized crime muscled in on a newly legitimized labor movement, crusading columnist Westbrook Pegler uncovered a union corruption scandal involving payments by Hollywood movie studios to the Chicago mob. Pegler's relentless exposé spurred the conviction of two prominent union leaders and won him a Pulitzer prize.

It was a shining example of the power of muckraking journalism, writes historian David Witwer in Shadow of the Racketeer. But it was something else, too. Using FBI and court records, Witwer demonstrates how Pegler, backed by the prominent publisher Roy W. Howard, carefully framed the scandal, ignoring the active role of business leaders and their own close ties to organized crime while tarring the entire union movement as corrupt and dangerous.

This shaping of the news, Witwer shows, strengthened conservative attacks on New Deal policies and spawned anti-labor legislation culminating in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Instead of effecting real reform, Witwer argues, Pegler successfully used the scandal to push a broader anti-labor agenda at a crucial juncture in U.S. history.

Pegler's legacy, he writes, "was a language of suspicion for organized laborÖ a menacing depiction of organized labor's power that antiunion forces evoked throughout the postwar era."

—David Pacchioli

David Witwer, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and humanities at Penn State Harrisburg. He can be reached at dxw44@psu.edu.

book cover for “Obelisk”

Standing Stone

Obelisk: A History(M.I.T. Press Burndy Library Publications)

From its ancient origins as an element in sun worship to its appearance in today's New Age healing spas, the obelisk has long been an object of fascination to humanity. Defined as a four-sided tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top, the classic obelisk—made famous by ancient Egyptian culture—is made out of a single massive stone. By quarrying a stone weighing hundreds of tons and setting it upright at a temple entrance, a leader displayed his might and created a timeless memorial to his rule.

Despite the massiveness of Egyptian obelisks, many were shipped to ancient Rome and Constantinople, and in the 18th and 19th centuries were installed in world capitals including Paris, London, and New York. The origins, travels and enduring appeal of the obelisk is presented in a comprehensive new survey by historians Brian A. Curran, Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin Weiss. The authors—including Curran, associate professor of art history at Penn State—combine impressive scholarship with a lively readable tone and many fine illustrations, as they explore everything from the engineering challenges of constructing and moving the obelisk, to its symbolism in the realms of politics, nationalism, and religion.

—Melissa Beattie-Moss

Brian A. Curran, Ph.D., is associate professor of art history at Penn State. He can be reached at bac18@psu.edu.

book cover for “Fans of the World Unite”

A Sporting Chance

Fans of the World Unite! A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers(Stanford University Press)

Say you want a revolution? In Fans of the World Unite!, Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski offer just that: a comprehensive plan to re-organize U.S. professional sports, which they maintain are badly served by monopolies of self-interested team owners.

Ross, a professor of law and founder of the Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research at Penn State, and Szymanski, an economics professor at London's City University, share a long interest in how organizational structures impact sports practice around the world. In the U.S. in particular, they argue, the current system, with its high ticket prices, TV blackouts, and closed leagues, not only oppresses fans and holds cities hostage to increasing demands for multi-million-dollar tax subsidies, but damages the sports it promotes.

Beginning with "A Sports Fans' Manifesto" (which self-mockingly echoes the U.S. Declaration of Independence), and citing along the way Alan Greenspan and Yoko Ono as well as Karl Marx and Adam Smith, they lay out a playful but serious case for reform based on two simple but radical ideas: league governance independent of team ownership and a European-soccer-style relegation system that promotes winning teams and demotes losers. Could be a game-changer.

—David Pacchioli

Stephen F. Ross, J.D., is professor of law and founder of the Institute for Sports, Law, Research, and Policy at Penn State. He can be reached at sfr10@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 12, 2010