MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 23, 2014: American Autobiographers: William Apess

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On an American voice I’m very thankful we have the opportunity to hear.
To my mind, one of the most fundamental American voices that has been unfortunately lost, or at least severely limited, in our public conversations over the last couple of decades is that of the progressive and socially critical preacher. Some of the most significant religious voices and perspectives in American life, from John Woolman and Jonathan Edwards all the way up to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., have used their deep spirituality and knowledge of scripture to, as the saying goes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to challenge the status quo and advance their own visions of the socially radical ideas that are at the heart of the New Testament and Christ’s teachings. It can be difficult, in this era of megachurches on the one hand (with their seeming perfection of televangelist practices and goals) and fundamentalist opposition to gay marriage on the other (with its cooption of Christian beliefs for deeply intolerant ends), to remember in fact just how radical and counter-culture religious voices in America have often been.
No American preacher fits that description better than William Apess. Born to mixed-race parents and into extreme poverty in the last years of the 18th century, Apess’s bio reads like a hyperbolic mashup of Early Republic and Native American issues: he lived (as he narrates it, at least) in the woods near Colrain, Massachusetts until he was five; the next decade or so spent as an indentured servant to various families in the area; enlisting in a New York militia at the age of 16 and fighting in the War of 1812; battling alcoholism throughout that time, and eventually finding hope in both marriage and his baptism and later ordination as an itinerant Methodist preacher during the period that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening; publishing both his own autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829, the first published autobiography by a Native author) and the conversion narratives of “Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” (1833); helping instigate and lead the peaceful Native American protest known as the Mashpee Revolt (1833), against state and national land and governance policies; becoming increasingly radical and cynical, culminating in his controversial speech and pamphlet Eulogy on King Philip (1836); and descending after that point into a brief final period of obscurity, alcoholism, and poverty, ending with his 1841 death in New York City. Each of those stages and experiences can open up its own complex window into, again, a whole range of local, ethnic, and national issues and identities in the period, making Apess one of the most rich subjects of study of all those American voices rediscovered in the last couple decades of scholarly work.
But if I had to boil that hugely full and complex life and work down to one text, it would have to be the pseudo-sermon “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” a work that Apess appended, almost as an afterthought, to the “Five Christian Indians” collection. The piece’s first sentence alone is I believe sufficient to introduce its striking combination of orality (Apess could and usually did write perfectly grammatical sentences, but doesn’t feel the need to do so consistently in this piece, and all I can say is that it works), strident and impassioned tone, and deeply radical and leveling religious themes: “Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are travelling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same, and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances, but will judge righteousness.” Damn straight. Later, Apess hits upon maybe the single most convincing religious rebuttal to racial prejudice ever constructed: “If black or red skins, or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God, it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal—for he has made fifteen colored people to one white, and placed them here upon this earth.” Say Amen, somebody, as my personal favorite radical revivalist preacher, Bruce Springsteen, has been known to put it.
What Apess does in those moments, and throughout this amazing, provocative, and powerful piece, is exactly what his title promises, and what all of these radical preachers have done so successfully in their own ways: holding a mirror up to the most hypocritical and horrific American attitudes and realities, comparing those attitudes and realities to the spiritual values that so many Americans have professed, and demanding of their audiences that they begin to take responsibility for what they see and what they say and what they do. We could use a few more such voices, I believe, and should be very thankful for the ones we’ve got.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014: American Autobiographers: Olaudah Equiano

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the controversial autobiography that should be required reading whatever its genre.
Fifteen years after the publication of John Woolman’s journal, the ex-slave turned British sailor, hairdresser, French horn player, and abolitionist (among his many other roles) Olaudah Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Equiano’s book was an international bestseller and has remained famous and significant as the first published autobiography by an African American (although that category, like any, is complicated when it comes to Equiano’s identity), but in recent years elements of its authenticity have been challenged. Scholar Vincent Carretta has unearthed evidence that suggests that Equiano may have been born in the Carolinas, and thus that the narrative’s African-set opening chapters were fabrications, created to enhance Equiano’s credibility as both an ex-slave and an abolitionist. The evidence is very ambiguous and open to continued debate, but certainly Carretta’s work has complicated any easy categorization of Equiano’s book as autobiography.
I dedicated a chapter of my second book to Equiano’s narrative, and addressed this controversy at length there. I made a couple of central points about the book’s opening images of Africa: that whatever their factual authenticity, they reveal a great deal about late 18th century images of Africa, and its relationship to the multiple other places (America, the Caribbean, England, the world of transatlantic trade) through which Equiano moved; and that Equiano’s choice to define himself, from his book’s title on, as “the African,” whether purely autobiographical or more voluntary, is an important one that can tell us a lot about constructions and complications of identity in his era, in those different settings and communities, and in how we have perceived and read him and his book in the centuries since. None of that means that the archival work of scholars like Carretta isn’t important, or that trying to learn the factual details of Equiano’s life doesn’t impact how we read and analyze his narrative—but to my mind, autobiographical writing is always more about contexts and communities, multiple and constructed identities and audiences, than the life story of one individual; and Equiano’s has much to tell us on those levels in any case.
Of the many such lessons Equiano’s book has to offer, the many reasons why I believe his narrative should be just as famous and foundational for American audiences as Ben Franklin’s, I would highlight in particular his striking evolutions, that huge range of stages and roles to which I alluded in my opening description above. In his time in the Caribbean alone Equiano was both a slave and an overseer, a sailor and a captain, a laborer and a merchant, among other shifts. Those changes, like the opportunity to purchase his own freedom that enabled most of them, were far from the norm for African slaves, and it would be important not to see Equiano’s life or book as broadly representative of that (or any) community. If we did make Equiano’s narrative required American reading, that is, we would want to pair it with a text like Frederick Douglass’ or Harriet Jacobs’, one that better captures the realities and histories of slavery. But on the other hand, just as Douglass and Jacobs moved through multiple stages and identities in their inspiring lives, Equiano’s amazingly varied life exemplifies such evolutions, and his narrative thus presents a unique and vital way for us to understand the constructions, revisions, and stories that have always comprised identity in America.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 21, 2014: American Autobiographers: John Woolman

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the autobiographer who traced his own wanderings, and so can help guide us on our own.
Maybe this will change as I get older and realize just how much kids today don’t get it and how much they could use a wise older voice and perspective (not unlike my own, mayhaps) to show them the light, but for now, I have to admit that many of the works of American literature most overtly intended to inspire change, to convince an audience of the benefits of following the author’s revolutionary philosophical ideas, leave me pretty cold. From 19th century/American Renaissance classics like Emerson’s “Nature” (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854) to Beat manifestos like Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)—and each of those four texts is far more complex than I’m giving them credit for here, but all I believe are meant to leave the reader convinced that the author has, if not all of the answers, at least some good starting points toward them—my response has largely been the same: I see the power and brilliance, but I’m ultimately more annoyed than impressed.
If I had to boil the reasons for my annoyance down to one idea, it’d be that all those texts seem to have been written with the answers already in mind, with the author already comfortable in his philosophical position and hoping both to narrate how he got there and convince us to do the same. That might seem to be a necessary condition for the writing of any work, much less a philosophical or persuasive one, yet I think it elides just how much any individual’s perspective and philosophy, like his or her identity and experiences, continue to evolve and (ideally) grow and deepen. For that reason, I find the Emerson who emerges in his journals to be infinitely more interesting and complex and attractive (as a thinker, as a writer, as an inspiration) than the one from whom we hear in the speeches and essays. And likewise, my vote for the most powerful and convincing work of American philosophy would be another journal, and one only published posthumously and so not at all written with immediate publication and persuasion among its goals: the journal of John Woolman (1720-1772), the itinerant Quaker minister who traveled through America for much of the 18th century, developing an impassioned and evolving perspective on religion and faith, community and charity, anti-slavery and Indian rights, pacifism and social activism, and many other complex questions through those journeys and the many people and worlds he encountered on them.
Woolman’s journal is eloquent and beautifully written, a literary masterpiece that has been in print since prior to the Revolution (it was published in 1774, two years after Woolman’s death) and so can lay claim to being one of our most foundational texts. Yet despite that stylistic and formal impressiveness it has an intimate quality, a rawness of perspective, that makes clear just how closely it reflects the open mind and heart of its author. From its first line—“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth of my age, I begin this work”—Woolman stresses both that intimacy and the text’s fluidity, its ability to grow and develop alongside him and his identity (and indeed he would write it throughout his final decade and a half of life). And in the book’s twelfth and final chapter, written over the months before Woolman’s death—and in fact in that chapter’s final paragraphs, likely composed just days before that tragic event, with it perhaps in sight—Woolman writes, “I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.” I don’t know that any single sentence has ever better captured life’s journey than that one—and I do know that few American texts offer a better guide to moving through life than does Woolman’s journal.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

July 19-20, 2014: American Beaches: Jamie Hirami’s Guest Post on Venice Beach

[With beach season underway in earnest, in this week’s series I’ve AmericanStudied some famous beaches, leading up to this Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
[Jamie Hirami is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the amazing Penn State Harrisburg program, where she’s writing a dissertation on Venice Beach which promises to break significantly new ground in American material culture and cultural studies. This Guest Post is just a glimpse of what’s to come!]
Freak Beach.  Muscle Beach.  Silicon Beach.  Coney Island of the Pacific.  Slum by the Sea.  Venice Beach, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, goes by many monikers.  None of those nicknames reference the original plan that founder Abbot Kinney, heir to a tobacco fortune, envisioned in 1898 when he bought out his real estate partners for the southern portion land that also originally encompassed Santa Monica: a resplendent, middle-class seaside resort and town, which would cater to its clientele with Chautauqua’s and other elements of high culture.  Ultimately, mass and popular cultures shaped its direction as an amusement destination while the counter cultures of the mid-twentieth century influenced its modern reputation as bohemian community. 

Modeled after Venice, Italy, Kinney transformed the marshy land into a series of navigable canals along which, early visitors could buy real estate for single-family home development. Venice-of-America officially opened on July 4, 1905 to a crowd of about 40,000 people.  Kinney’s grand cultural intentions culminated in a 3,400 seat auditorium built for educational lectures and cultural performances, which closed after one season.  Instead, visitors flocked to the pier, bathhouse, beach and other amusements.  In fact, rides and games proved to be so much more popular than the Chautauqua experience, that in January 1906, he opened the hugely popular midway plaisance, which included exhibits and freak shows from the world’s fairs in Portland and St. Louis.

By the time Kinney died in October 1920, Venice’s original luster had greatly diminished.  The canals did not drain properly, creating murky and dirty waterways, and the national trend for boardwalk amusements, in general, faded.  Years of opposition by the growing permanent residents and clergy to boxing matches, alcohol, dancing, and more sordid amusements was capped by a hugely destructive fire that caused over a $1 million in damages.  In 1925, the City of Los Angeles annexed Venice, filling its famous canals in 1929 to make room for roads. 

Over the next forty years, Venice remained an outwardly run-down version of its former self, but in its place, a vibrant counter-culture fomented cultural growth.  It became a Southern California hotbed for the Beats; a hippie commune during the Sixties; and it embraced transients, hustlers, artists, and performers. 
Today, Venice’s increasingly gentrified neighborhoods have put homeless and homeowners, hustlers and shop-owners, and low-income versus high-income residents at odds, but it still maintains a fierce stance against the mainstream.  In 2007, Abbot Kinney Blvd. (the main commercial thoroughfare) opened its first chain store—Pinkberry—causing an uproar among residents and local shop owners who petitioned people to boycott the chain.  Three years later, it closed because it was underperforming.  More importantly, Venice still maintains ties to its popular culture beginnings with numerous sidewalk performers, a freak show along the boardwalk, and a voyeuristic outdoor gym among other diversions.  Venice Beach, through its varied history, remains, at heart, a destination that caters to popular amusements.
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?]

Friday, July 18, 2014

July 18, 2014: American Beaches: Baywatch

[With beach season underway in earnest, a series AmericanStudying some famous beaches. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
On why those beautiful beach bodies are also a body of evidence.
Late last year, I humorously but also earnestly noted that to a dedicated AmericanStudier, any text, even Baywatch, is a possible site of complex analysis. I stand by that possibility, and will momentarily offer proof of same. But before I do, it’s important to foreground the basic but crucial reason for Baywatch’s existence and popularity, one succinctly highlighted by Joey and Chandler: pretty people running in slow-motion in bathing suits. While I plan to make a bit more of the show and its contexts and meanings than that, it’d be just plain cray-cray to pretend that either the show’s intent or its audience didn’t focus very fully on those beautiful bodies. Moreover, such an appeal was nothing new or unique—while the beach setting differentiated Baywatch a bit, I would argue that most prime-time soap operas have similarly depended on the attractiveness of their casts to keep their audiences watching.
If Baywatch was partly a prime-time soap opera, however, it would also be possible to define the show’s genre differently: in relationship to both the police and medical dramas that were beginning to dominate the TV landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Baywatch debuted in 1989). After all, the show’s plotlines typically included both rescues and crimes; while the lifeguards often dealt with romantic and interpersonal drama as well, so too did the docs of ER or the cops of Miami Vice (to name two of the era’s many entries in these genres). Seen in this light, and particularly when compared to the period’s police dramas, Baywatch was relatively progressive in the gender balance of its protagonists—compared to another California show, CHiPs, for example, which similarly featured pretty people solving promised land problems but which focused almost entirely on male protagonists. Yes, the women of  Baywatch were beautiful and dressed skimpily—but the same could be said of the men, and both genders were equally heroic as well.
The creators of Baywatch tried to make the cop show parallel overt with the ill-fated detective spinoff Baywatch Nights, about which the less said the better (even AmericanStudiers have their limits). But the problem with BN wasn’t just its awfulness (Baywatch itself wasn’t exactly The Wire, after all), it was that it missed a crucial element to the original show’s success: the beach. And no, I’m not talking about the bathing suits. I would argue that the most prominent 1970s and 1980s cultural images of the beach were Jaws and its many sequels and imitators, a set of images that made it seem increasingly less safe to go back in the water. And then along came David Hasselhoff, Pam Anderson, and company, all determined to take back the beaches and shift our cultural images to something far more pleasant and attractive than Bruce munching on tourists. Whatever you think of the show, is there any doubt that they succeeded, forever inserting themselves and their slow-mo running into our cultural narratives of the beach?
Special guest post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 17, 2014: American Beaches: On the Beach

[With beach season underway in earnest, a series AmericanStudying some famous beaches. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
On the intense and tragic film that couldn’t compete with historic fears.
1959, the same year as the original Gidget movie about which I blogged yesterday, also saw the release of a very, very different beach film: On the Beach. Based on British-Australian writer Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, the film featured an all-star cast (including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire) as the sailors, scientists, and their friends and loved ones dealing with a post-apocalyptic world. It’s 1964, World War III has taken place, and the resulting radiation is slowly taking over the world and destroying its remaining inhabitants. Mostly set on or around Peck’s submarine, the film uses that setting to create a broadly claustrophobic tone, portraying a world in which likely slow death by radiation poisoning or the humane but absolute alternative of suicide pills seem to be the only possible futures. It’s unrelenting and uncompromising, and deserves to be much better remembered than it is.
While that’s true of the film on its own artistic merits, it’s even more true in terms of what the film reveals about the Cold War’s threats and fears. When I think of World War III scenarios in popular films, I tend to think of over-the-top dramatics of one kind or another: the ridiculous satire of Dr. Strangelove (1964); the teenage humor and heroics of War Games (1983) and The Manhattan Project (1986); the flag-waving jingoism of Red Dawn (1984). All of those films can illustrate certain important aspects of the period, but all feel, again, exaggerated in one way or another, extreme in both their plots and tones. Whereas On the Beach, to this AmericanStudier at least, feels profoundly grounded, offers a socially and psychologically realistic depiction not just of the potential aftermath of a nuclear war, but also and even more tellingly of the period’s collective fears about what such a war would mean and do. Seeing [SPOILER ALERT] Fred Astaire kill himself rather than face imminent radiation poisoning—well, that feels deeply representative of the moment’s worst fears.
You’d think that such fears might have led to more widespread opposition to the Cold War’s arms race and military industrial complex—and indeed the U.S. military must have thought so too, as they denied the filmmakers permission to use a submarine or any other official materials. But I would argue that whatever possible influence such fears might have had was far outweighed by a different set of fears, ones exemplified by October 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis: fears not of nuclear war and its aftermath per se, but rather of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and what would happen if America’s did not match and even exceed that opposing threat. Whereas On the Beach portrayed the horrific results of a nuclear war, the Missile Crisis reflected and amplified fears that the U.S. was potentially unprepared for such a war, one that our enemy was willing and able to bring to our very doorstep. Perhaps no film, not even one as compelling and convincing as On the Beach, could compete with such historic threats—and so the arms race and the Cold War only deepened in the 1960s and beyond.
Last beach context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July 16, 2014: American Beaches: Gidget and The Beach Boys

[With beach season underway in earnest, a series AmericanStudying some famous beaches. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
On popular cultural images of the beach, and what we might make of them.
An alien observer seeking to learn about America solely from its popular culture might well think that in the early 1960s the whole nation had gone surf crazy. The hit 1959 film Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee as a rebellious 17 year old who joins the local surfer culture and Cliff Robertson as the Korean War vet turned surf guru who shepherds her along, quickly spawned two popular sequels: 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian (with Deborah Walley taking over the title role) and 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome (with Cindy Carol doing the same). One of 1962’s best-selling rock albums was Surfin’ Safari, the debut by the California group The Beach Boys; less than a year later they released their first mega-hit, Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963). There were of course many other popular trends in these years, but on both the big screen and the record machine, surfing was a surefire early 1960s hit.
Trying to make sense of why and how American fads get started can be pretty difficult at best, but I would argue that the surfing fad in popular culture can be analyzed in a couple different ways. For one thing, the fad represents an interesting way to illustrate the transition between the 1950s and 1960s—as Gidget demonstrates, surfing culture has often been portrayed as a counter-culture, an alternative to the more buttoned-down mainstream society, and of course the rise of counter-cultures (and the kinds of social and cultural movements to which they connected) is a key element to the 1960s in America. So the popularity of these surfing texts (like the popularity of early rock and roll more generally) could be read as an indication that Americans were ready for such counter-culture movements, and Gidget itself could be defined as a 1959 origin point for much of what followed in next decade. Seen in that light, the hugely popular 1966 documentary The Endless Summer represents a high-water mark for all these trends, before the counter-culture began to distintegrate later in the decade.
While that specific historical context would be one way to analyze the early 1960s surfing fad, however, I think a longstanding American narrative could offer another option. It was three decades later that the film Point Break (1991) overtly linked surfers to outlaws, potraying a band of surfing bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze’s philosophical Bodhi (a character not unlike Cliff Robertson’s in Gidget). But to my mind, surfing culture has always contained echoes of the Wild West, represented a new lawless frontier where rough but noble cowboys escape the confines of civilization, battle for survival in extreme conditions, and, if they’re lucky, ride off in Western sunsets. The Wild West was always more of a cultural image than a historical or social reality, of course, and an image constructed with particular clarity in a pop culture text, the Western. That genre was famously moving toward more revisionist films by the late 1960s—but perhaps it had already been supplanted, or at least supplemented, in popular consciousness by surfing stories. In any case, to quote “Surfin’ Safari”: “I tell you surfing’s mighty wild.”
Next beach context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?