OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Bryant Simon

Portrait of Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon, professor of history at Temple University, is the author of A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948 (1998), Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (2004), and Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (2009), and was coeditor of Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000). His most recent book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (2020) is a broad-ranging study of the high costs of cheap food built around the tragic story of a 1991 fatal factory fire where twenty-five workers died behind locked doors.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Simon's lecture looks at the legacy of Steinbeck's fiction, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl. In particular, it explores how a succession of musicians and artists from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen to Steve Earle to Rage Against the Machine use the fictional experiences on the road and in the labor camps of the enduring Steinbeck character -- the scrappy everyman, Joad -- to comment on their present and the problems on their own times. As a bigger take-away, my talk suggests that Joad and the Dust Bowl are part in a greater, though not always recognized, American political tradition of community and cooperation. This talk is suitable for wider public audiences with its focus on popular figures and sounds.
From Main Street to Minneapolis to Monterrey, Starbucks has planted its coffee-stained flag in every corner of the U.S. Consumers in Memphis order the same grande orange creme frappuccino as their counterparts demand in Madison. For a moment around 2000, Starbucks became, without question, as pervasive and powerful a brand as Nike and McDonald's. What is it about this Seattle-based coffee company that got 25 million people's hearts pumping with caffeine every day? Simon will show that Starbucks’ success isn’t really about the coffee or even the comfy couches. Seattle's finest peddled the appearance of a premium lifestyle at a top price that consumers willingly purchased. But why? According to Simon, Starbucks attracted crowds all day long because it packaged the everyday desires of the middle-class millions and promised to ease their most profound anxieties. Understanding Starbucks, then, is to understand broad changes in American life, culture, and politics and the on-going search for solutions for individual and community wants and needs. That makes a trip through Starbucks’s history a meandering trip through recent American history.