Dancing at Halftime

From The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated September 15, 2000

                             HOT TYPE

NYU Press to Publish Book U. of Illinois Press Rejected, on Controversial Campus Mascot
                             By JENNIFER K. RUARK

HOME OF THE BRAVE: When Carol Spindel decided to write a book about a controversy at her university, the university's press seemed the obvious home for it.
Dancing at Halftime, about the embattled University of Illinois team mascot, Chief Illiniwek, "was very much a regional book," says the writer, an adjunct faculty member in the English department at Urbana-Champaign.

Indeed, the University of Illinois Press was initially very interested. Peer evaluations of the manuscript were positive enough that the press asked her to revise it, and a local paper covering the Chief controversy reported that Illinois would publish the book.

But the revised manuscript never went back out to the reviewers. In April 1998, Ms.Spindel was surprised to receive a rejection letter from Ann Lowry, the press's assistant director, explaining the decision of the press's then-director, Richard L.Wentworth: The controversy -- between those who think the Chief is a racist caricature and those who think he is an honorable symbol of the region's past -- had grown more, rather than less, heated since Ms. Spindel had submitted the manuscript. Members of the university's board, which has long fought efforts to dump the Chief, had dug in their heels.

"Given that the Press's books are formally copyrighted in the name of the Board of Trustees, Dick is concerned that our publication of Dancing at Halftime would constitute an affront to certain members of that body," wrote Ms. Lowry. Moreover, Mr. Wentworth was scheduled to retire before the book could be published and didn't want "his successor to be plunged immediately into a protracted controversy." The director himself called Ms. Spindel two days later to apologize.

"They had been so enthusiastic," says Ms. Spindel. "It's not what I thought university presses did." Other observers on the campus cried "censorship!" and the rumor circulated that the board had threatened repercussions if the manuscript were published.

Not at all, replies Mr. Wentworth, who still works at the press part-time. "We've never consulted with the trustees on anything we've published," he says. He acknowledges that he was worried about putting his successor in a pickle, but emphasizes that the readers' reports on the manuscript were mixed: "There wasn't a good enough case for us to proceed. I'm sure it's a very different manuscript at this point."

Ms. Spindel thinks so, as does Eric Zinner, her editor at New York University Press, who urged her to broaden the book beyond Chief Illiniwek. In October, N.Y.U. will publish the result, Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots.

Chief Illiniwek is still Ms. Spindel's central case study. Although she has campaigned against him, her book is less a polemic than an exploration of the Chief's meaning for his supporters and detractors alike. Ms. Spindel, a transplant to Illinois who never expected to make her home there, initially supported the mascot. "I felt concerned that they were being criticized for creating a fictional character," she says. "As a writer, that bothered me."

But she finally decided that even "benign" Indian mascots obscure the truth of Indian life today. She thinks the tenacity of their fans reveals something about American life. "People have a real longing for connection to place. Well, if they think very seriously about how we acquired this land, they're caught in a tangle of ambivalence. Mythology is the human solution to that bind. But a myth that justifies the actions of the non-Indian majority does us real harm. Somehow we have to create a history that's encompassing and inclusive."

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