Search Results for: George-Wright

Longreads Best of 2021: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All "best of" featured images by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2021. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday. Read more…

Bowie Knives, Concealed Rifles, and Caning Charles Sumner

South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beating abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate chamber, 1856. Lithograph by J.L. Magee. Getty Archive.

Jason Phillips | an excerpt adapted from The Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future | Oxford University Press | 19 minutes (5,208 words)


Bowie knives first appeared in the early republic after civilians stopped wearing swords. A sign of aristocracy, swords went out of fashion after the American and French Revolutions, and even British gentlemen stopped wearing them. Social pressures encouraged men to replace swords with concealed weapons, and changes in clothing accommodated this shift by introducing more pockets in men’s coats and pants. Sword canes and percussion pistols offered more discreet forms of self-defense, but sword canes took time to unsheathe and were brittle, while pistols were inaccurate and unreliable. After the sword became socially taboo, none of the period’s other weapons replaced its usefulness in a melee.

Such fracases flourished on the southwestern frontier. Slavery was predicated on violence, and white men resorted to physical brutality to assert their authority over blacks, women, children, and each other. A code of honor encouraged men to duel and feud over misunderstandings and insults. Unsettled territories like the Old Southwest fostered fighting because they lacked local law enforcement and efficient courts. If lawmen existed, they often belonged to feuding clans. No wonder people literally took matters into their own hands. Read more…

A Kendrick Lamar Syllabus

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys on January 28, 2018. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

Last month, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his 2017 album DAMN. It’s the first work of hip-hop to be commended since the award for musical composition was created in 1943. Most winners have been classical musicians, and a few, like Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, composers of jazz.

The Pulitzer board noted that DAMN. “offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” The album’s selection updates and redefines conceptions of music and high culture — it is canon expanding and its reverberations and aftershocks should be significant.

DAMN. is Lamar’s third album, and while it is spectacular, I don’t think it’s his most thrilling. good kid m.A.A.d. city, from 2012, succeeds more on the plane of hip-hop aesthetics, with its structurally sound story arc. To Pimp a Butterfly, from 2015, was more melodically lush, and it magnetized a rising tide of political fervor: The single “Alright” became a protest anthem, and every major release by a popular black musician afterward seemed to form a politically-charged chorus.

Lamar has made a career of delivering prescient, complex work that is sometimes fiery and discordant, and other times deeply meditative or grief-stricken. But his work always feels honest. With the significance of his Pulitzer in sight, I offer a small selection of the insightful writing on Lamar that has published in the years since his debut.
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It’s Like That: The Makings of a Hip-Hop Writer

T-Neck Records, 4th & B'way, Jive, Profile Records, Ruffhouse Records

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | June 2019 | 45 minutes (7,644 words)


Recently a friend told me, “When I was a newbie at Vibe magazine, I always thought, Mike looks like what I always imagined a real writer looked like, with your trenchcoat and briefcase and papers … and your hats. I can’t forget the hats.” Though he did forget the Mikli glasses and wingtips, I had to confess my style was one I’d visualized years before when I was a Harlem boy hanging out in the Hamilton Grange Library on 145th Street, looking at Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin book jacket pictures.

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The Case for Letting Malibu Burn

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Mike Davis | Ecology of Fear | Metropolitan Books | September 1998 | 20 minutes (5,921 words)


“Homes, of course, will arise here in the thousands. Many a peak will have its castle.”

—John Russell McCarthy, These Waiting Hills (1925)


Late August to early October is the infernal season in Los Angeles. Downtown is usually shrouded in acrid yellow smog while heat waves billow down Wilshire Boulevard. Outside air-conditioned skyscrapers, homeless people huddle miserably in every available shadow.

Across the Harbor Freeway, the overcrowded tenements of the Westlake district—Los Angeles’s Spanish Harlem—are intolerable ovens. Suffocating in their tiny rooms, immigrant families flee to the fire escapes, stoops, and sidewalks. Anxious mothers swab their babies’ foreheads with water while older children, eyes stinging from the smog, cry for paletas: the flavored cones of shaved ice sold by pushcart vendors. Shirtless young men—some with formidable jail-made biceps and mural-size tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe across their backs—monopolize the shade of tienda awnings. Amid hundreds of acres of molten asphalt and concrete there is scarcely a weed, much less a lawn or tree.

Thirty miles away, the Malibu coast—where hyperbole meets the surf—basks in altogether different weather. The temperature is 85°F (20 degrees cooler than Downtown), and the cobalt blue sky is clear enough to discern the wispish form of Santa Barbara Island, nearly 50 miles offshore. At Zuma surfers ride the curl under the insouciant gazes of their personal sun goddesses, while at Topanga Beach, horse trainers canter Appaloosas across the wet sand. Indifferent to the misery on the “mainland,” the residents of Malibu suffer through another boringly perfect day.

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Jack, Jacqueline — Dad

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Yvonne Conza | Longreads | December 2018 | 28 minutes (6,875 words)


Dad is dying. A cell phone ping alerts me to a terse, fracturing email from my father’s younger brother.

Your Father is in a Florida Hospice. My eyes freeze on the bold subject line as I’m having dinner with a friend at an East Village restaurant. The muffled music and clatter of cutlery become an inescapable tunnel of sound. Childhood memories torpedo my thoughts and conflict with the reality that Dad is close to passing away on the cusp of turning 79. Thirty years of not knowing where or how he lived vanish.


To most everyone, John Joseph Downes was Jack, but to a few he was Jacqueline, and to Mom, my three older siblings and me, called “Jackass” behind his back. Dad’s multiplex of enduring identities also include: door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesman; entrepreneur selling jigs, molds, gauges and fixture parts to automotive plants through a business he built from scratch; and the owner of a successful home health care agency. A Buffalo Bills fan, he gave his season tickets to clients while he watched games at home eating cheese curds and pretzels. He was a seeker of public office, wearer of white button-down shirts with wife-beater tanks underneath, actual wife beater, sporadic psoriasis sufferer, excellent provider, entertainer, showoff, lover of culture and a Chivas Regal drinker who, as these wailing memories emerge, will not live two months more to celebrate his New Year’s Eve birthday.

For a few years, Dad donned a hearse-black, trapezoid-contoured toupee that our Russian Blue cat murderously stalked like a sly predator. When askew on Dad’s head, the cat didn’t tamper with the hairpiece. But once it was placed atop Mom’s dresser she pounced on it, battled with double-sided tape and amused all, even Dad, with her mischief. Stored in a cherry wood armoire and draped over a creepy female Styrofoam white mannequin wig stand was Dad’s more notable wig, a dolled up shoulder-length Jackie O. bouffant postiche with satiny strands looped into starched beach waves. Had he added oval, dark, smoke-tinted oversized sunglasses, the look would have been complete.

He had a proclivity towards cross-dressing, a marital joint venture since Mom slipped him into finery that hung inside a shared closet. Though their bedroom door was kept closed, the curtains weren’t pulled down, perhaps intentionally, to spark a pivotal conversation. As a child of 8, I was blindsided by intimate details that felt jarring and amiss. Whenever I put away his freshly laundered socks and t-shirts, I had to open the shuttered double doors of his dresser and be exposed to the cavernous storage area where timepieces and ties kept Jackie O’s foam head company.

When I was not much older, flickering flashes, not belonging to a swarm of fireflies, distracted me from Charlie’s Angels. Looking up to the wide-open windows of my parent’s second floor bedroom I saw Dad accessorized, demure and toying with puckered painted lips. Backlit and indefinably beautiful, he seemed more himself in a size 16 dress than in one of his polyester baby blue or pickle green leisure suits.

Once while snooping for Christmas presents, I discovered Polaroid portraits of Dad as Jackie stashed in a shabby shoebox on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. Clad in kitten heels, stockings and a conservative, zip-from-behind dress, he had been transformed into a chunky, rarified suggestion of Jacqueline Kennedy. When not embodying Jacqueline, he wore a suit, white shirt and tie, shaved, splashed on decadent amounts of Old Spice.  It was hard for him to keep a clean shave, 5 o’clock shadow always intruding. He bore a resemblance to Don Knotts, the billboard-sized forehead over his eyebrows, which I inherited, displaying struggle, though in a more generous light it beamed with determination. After stuffing pens in his pocket protector, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work he’d go — a tender, paunch bellied dwarf with pick and shovel who knew not to return home until a million diamonds shined, and his worth to his wife could be proven.

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Los Angeles Plays Itself

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

David L. Ulin | Sidewalking | University of California Press | October 2015 | 41 minutes (8,144 words)


“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”

— Frank Black


One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.

There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.

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Longreads Best of 2016: Here Are All of Our No. 1 Story Picks from This Year

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2016. To get you ready, here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free weekly email every Friday. Read more…

How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It)

Simon Reynolds | Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century | Dey Street Books| October 2016 | 19 minutes (5,289 words)


Below is an excerpt from Shock and Awe, by Simon Reynolds.

* * *

People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.

On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.

Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.

During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.

Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)

Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.

‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs. Read more…

Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology

Illustration by Pat Barrett

Alec Nevala-Lee | Longreads | February 2017 | 28 minutes (7,744 words)



L. Ron Hubbard published over four million words of fiction in his lifetime, but his most famous story consists of just a few handwritten pages. Before their contents were leaked in the early ’70s, they could be viewed at the Advanced Organization Building of the Church of Scientology, a hulking blue edifice off Sunset Boulevard where visitors were handed a manila envelope to open in a private room. Most had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege, which made it by far the most lucrative story Hubbard, or perhaps anyone, ever wrote—a spectacular rate for a writer who spent much of his career earning a penny per word.

The story itself, which has become more familiar than Hubbard or any of his disciples ever intended, revolves around the figure of Xenu, the tyrannical dictator of the Galactic Confederation. Millions of years ago, Xenu, faced with an overpopulation crisis, threw hordes of his own people into volcanoes on the planet Earth—then known as Teegeeack—and blew them up with atomic bombs. Their spirits, called thetans, survive to the present day, clinging to unsuspecting humans, and they can only be removed through dianetic auditing, a form of talk therapy that clears the subject of its unwanted passengers.

One of the church members who read this account was screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who was a devoted Scientologist for over three decades before resigning in an ugly public split. Haggis told Lawrence Wright, the author of the seminal New Yorker piece that became the exposé Going Clear, that after finishing the story, he got the wild idea that it was some sort of insanity test—if you believed it, you were kicked out. When he asked his supervisor for clarification, he was informed: “It is what it is.” Haggis read it again, but the same thought continued to resound in his brain: “This is madness.” Read more…