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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15, 2014: Animated History: Peter Pan

[Inspired by my recent viewings of The Lego Movie and Frozen with my boys, a series on what animated films (including those two) can help us AmericanStudy. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly complex and under-appreciated American animator!]
On datedness, racism, and teachable moments.
In the midst of Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) can be found one of the most cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, racist sequences you’re likely to find in any mainstream Hollywood film of the post-World War II era. Centered on the song “What Makes the Red Man Red,” this sequence—which, if you haven’t seen, I can’t possibly do justice to here, so please watch the 3.5 minute clip hyperlinked there if you would—includes so many visual, linguistic, cultural, and historical stereotypes associated with Native Americans that it feels a bit like the perfect card in Racism Bingo (which would be about the worst party game ever). Given that the Native American chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily, is portrayed as a potential love interest for (and in any case loyal friend to) our hero Peter Pan, the sequence clearly wasn’t intended to be insulting to that character or her culture—but, well, the road to hell and all.
It’d be easy to excuse or at least rationalize the sequence as simply dated, a reflection of a very different era in American culture and society (which is what many of the YouTube commenters on that linked video seem to have done). But while that might be partly true, it’s just as accurate to note that there had been prominent American critiques of such stereotypes (both from within the Native American community and from reformers and allies of that broad community) for more than a century prior to the film’s release. Moreover, while the 1950s were certainly far different from the 2010s in terms of racial images and issues overall, I can’t imagine a parallel 1953 sequence featuring African American or Asian American characters being created and included in a mainstream film (What Makes the Yellow Man Yellow? Doubtful). It seems indisputable that the sequence exists because of another, complementary set of racist narratives—the sense that Native Americans were not a meaningful contemporary American presence, not a potential audience bloc, not a community toward whose interests and responses Disney would need to be sensitive.
So do we throw out the baby with the bathwater, dismissing the whole of this important animated film because of this one egregious and to my mind indefensible sequence? I don’t think we can or should—but neither do I think we should just minimize or ignore the sequence, or otherwise try to view the movie without it. Instead, I think it’s vital to focus overtly on how, in a movie that has nothing to do with such issues or images (that is, this isn’t Song of the South), a sequence like this could be created and included, could become part of mainstream American culture in 1953. Which is to say, while I think we tend to overuse the concept of “teachable moments” these days, I absolutely believe that if and when I show my sons Peter Pan, it would be vital to highlight and use this sequence as precisely such a moment, a reflection of some of the worst (but also most telling, now as then) of our culture’s narratives and attitudes.
Next animated history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this film, or other animated histories and stories you’d highlight?

Monday, April 14, 2014

April 14, 2014: Animated History: Doctor Propaganda

[Inspired by my recent viewings of The Lego Movie and Frozen with my boys, a series on what animated films (including those two) can help us AmericanStudy. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly complex and under-appreciated American animator!]
On an icon’s surprising starting points.
As I wrote in one of my earliest posts, it’s possible to read The Cat in the Hat (1957) as particularly radical in its portrayals of family and gender roles (especially in relationship to dominant 1950s images and narratives). But even if you don’t subscribe to that reading of Cat, it’d be very difficult to argue that its author, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), didn’t have a substantial and generally very radical impact on the world of children’s books and animation—not just in his voice and style, his silliness and playfulness, his breaking of virtually every formal and generic rule, but also in his subtle but frequent inclusion of progressive themes and morals, including prominently the anti-Cold War (and anti-war period) ethics of The Butter Battle Book, among many other such messages.
Which makes it that much harder to grapple with the fact that Geisel got his start crafting animated propaganda films for the military during and after World War II. But he did—first making army training films (featuring the cautionary tales of one Private Snafu) as part of Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (the organization that produced the most prominent U.S. WWII propaganda, the epic eight-part Why We Fight series), then branching out into even more overt anti-Axis propaganda works. Geisel even continued to make such films in the aftermath of the war, creating works to be distributed to soldiers in occupied post-war Germany. To call these films propaganda isn’t to critique them, necessarily—the term has come to be used pejoratively much of the time, but at its core it’s simply descriptive, a categorization of works that are overtly designed to further political purposes. Geisel’s World War II works were precisely that, and achieved their purposes clearly and convincingly.
As the Capra reference indicates, Geisel was far from alone as an artist who enlisted in the war effort—in fact, he was more the norm than the exception. Moreover, it’s even possible to link his World War II works directly to (for example) his later anti-Cold War messages, since in both cases he could be seen as opposing the proliferation of violence and war (in the first case by the Axis powers, in the second by the Cold War superpowers). But for me, the problem is more one of style—whatever else we say about propaganda films, they are by design and necessity both straightforward and conservative, neither of which are terms that we would likely apply to most of Seuss’s subsequent children’s books and works. Of course we can simply say that Seuss evolved and changed, as does any artist (especially a talented one) over the length of a long career. But we also have to consider that each stage of Seuss’s career tells us something about the man and his work, and can’t dismiss or minimize the first stage just because it doesn’t line up with how we (or at least I) like to think of him.
Next animated history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this film, or other animated histories and stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

April 12-13, 2014: Crowd-sourced AmericanStudies Books

[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So in this week’s series I’ve highlighted a handful of the books I discovered there. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from titles shared by fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
First, two more from this AmericanStudier: the edited collection Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (edited by Jason Phillips).
Luke Dietrich reiterates Trachtenberg, and adds Amy Kaplan’s The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places.
Todd Parry notes that Charlotte Biltekoff’s Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health “is insightful and very cleverly written.”
For more creative works, Matt Cogswell mentions American Horror Story and Quintin Burks goes with One Hundred Years of Solitude; while Ian James notes, “I found Noah to be a very interesting film that made me think. Not only was it a compelling new take on the classic story that featured the human struggle with personal morality, but it prompted an inner discussion in my mind about storytelling as well.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any other new (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight?

Friday, April 11, 2014

April 11, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: Aggressive Fictions

[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the sentence I really love in the description for the week’s final new scholarly book.
There seems to be a lot to like about Kathryn Hume’s Aggressive Fictions: Reading the Contemporary American Novel (2011; so not as new as the others in the series, but I just learned about it at the conference): her readings of about forty (!) late 20th and early 21st century novels; her striking variety of authors, genres, and themes/topics within that wide-ranging collection of texts; her willingness to confront head on, and then make the case for, some of the most challenging and frustrating elements of contemporary fiction. But I’ll admit that my central interest in Hume’s book stems from one particular sentence in the book’s description: “Looking beyond the theory-based justifications that critics often provide for such fiction, Hume offers a commonsense guide for the average reader who wants to better understand and appreciate books that might otherwise seem difficult to enjoy.”
Amen. A scholarly book both written for general audiences and making the case for the importance of its focal subjects for such audiences. A. Freaking. Men. Nothing else I need to say!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: new (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

April 10, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: Failure and the American Writer

[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the next book in the evolving career of one of the most interesting AmericanStudiers.
I think all of us humans look to other people for models and inspiration, and I know that such examples are vital in a profession and career as complex and open-ended as academia. Many of the fellow scholars about whom I’ve written in Scholarly Review and Tribute posts fit that bill for me, have offered in their careers and work models for the path I hope to follow in my own. But few have seemed to offer quite as overt a blueprint for my own series of AmericanStudies books as Gavin Jones, who similarly began his career with a cultural and historical analysis of Gilded Age literature (Strange Talk, 1999), moved into a broader engagement with American literary and cultural history (American Hungers, 2007), and has found his way to an even more sweeping public scholarly topic in his most recent book: Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History (2014).
Jones’ first two books weren’t just models in terms of their respective focal points and motivating questions, however; they were also exemplary scholarly engagements with their topics. Strange Talk takes the often-controversial subject of dialect literature seriously without losing a sense of ethics, analyzing all the different permutations of the form in the late 19th century on their own terms yet maintaining a clear set of arguments about the more and less troubling and even oppressive versions of the trend. American Hungers traces more than a century of literary and cultural representations of poverty both broadly and specifically, making convincing connections across its works and periods while paying close, nuanced attention to particular examples and elements throughout. In their respective ways both books provided pitch-perfect illustrations of successful AmericanStudies scholarship, and I have no doubt that Failure will offer its own impressive models for my ongoing thinking and writing.
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it also seems likely to me that Failure will add another layer to my ongoing thoughts about the topic of my own next book: the idea, which I’m trying to capture in the phrase Hard-Won Hope, that it’s only through our engagements with our darkest realities and histories that we can find our way to a brighter future. In his focus on the topic of failure, as partly a contrast with but also and even more importantly a complement to our national emphasis on success, Jones has found a rich vein of such darker but still productive shared experiences and emotions. But at the same time, it looks as if Jones has continued to link such broad ideas to his readings of particular authors and works, and thus to model one more time how much our overarching narratives and arguments depend on close, sustained engagement with specific examples and analyses. I look forward to another round of inspiration for my own such work!
Last new book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

April 9, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: Viewing America

[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the book that takes 21st century TV as seriously as it deserves.
On the same day that this post appears, my Writing II students will turn in their fourth paper of the semester, a comparative analysis of two film and/or TV texts (of their choosing). I assigned this particular paper in part as a sneaky way to get them thinking about comparative analysis while making it fun, and in part because the class’s overall focus is on reading our 21st century world and so much of that entails reading and analyzing these kinds of visual media. But I also believe—as this blog has demonstrated time and again—that we AmericanStudies scholars need to take film and TV texts (like pop music, material culture, and other forms) just as seriously as we do more traditional literary and historical ones; not only because they can all reveal aspects of our culture and identity, but because they demand the same level of close attention and analysis.
While I would make that case for any and all film and TV texts, however, it’s also undeniably true—as I wrote in this post expressing my appreciation for this trend—that the last couple decades have witnessed a golden age for AmericanStudies television. I’ve read plenty of blog posts and reviews that have expressed similar perspectives on this era in TV—including, most consistently, the work of the great Alan Sepinwall, whose book The Revolution was Televised (2012) collected his arguments about twelve seminal 1990s and 2000s shows—but on the Narrative book tables I saw one of the first scholarly books I’ve seen on the subject: Christopher Bigsby’s Viewing America: Twenty-First Century Television Drama (2013). Bigsby’s book covers nine shows in great depth, ranging from completed classics such as The Sopranos, The West Wing, and The Wire to newer, not-yet-finished shows including Mad Men and (the since-completed) Treme.
I only got a chance to browse Bigsby’s book briefly, and already found at least a few takes on both West Wing and The Wire with which I would disagree. But that’s a big part of the point—here’s a scholarly engagement with some of the same great shows with which I’ve tried to engage in this space, as part of my AmericanStudying of our turn of the 21st century moment. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to make the case (which Bigsby does, I believe) that TV has become the medium for the most consistently impressive 21st century American art and artists—but it’s in the conversation, as this important AmericanStudies book reflects and amplifies.
Next new book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April 8, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: The Negro in Illinois

[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the book that provides much-needed closure—and opens up so much more.
In the late 1930s, the Illinois’ Writers Project, a section of the Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Writers’ Project, teamed with a number of Harlem Renaissance authors and artists on a multi-year research and writing effort entitled The Negro in Illinois. Utilizing the talents of numerous writers centered in Chicago, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and many others, the project was intended to produce a comprehensive history of African American experiences and communities in the state, one both historical (dating back to the earliest records of slavery) and contemporary (based on oral histories and other research). It would have resulted in a publication unlike any other in American culture—but when the project was canceled in 1942, most of what had been produced was simply shelved.
Until July 2013, when the University of Illinois Press and editor Brian Dolinar (working with Chicago Public Library archivist Michael Flug) released The Negro in Illinois, an edited volume that collects and annotates the majority of the project’s efforts. The fact that this book has been produced at all, more than 70 years after the project’s cancellation, is in and of itself a hugely inspiring story, one of those very rare moments when unfinished histories, the kinds seemingly inevitably lost to the march of time, can receive this kind of renewed attention and closure. But for any scholar and American not able to travel to Illinois to view the original papers and interested in the histories and stories, the lives and communities, captured in those papers—which should be all Americans interested in our history and culture and identity—that closure also opens up many doors, avenues for reading and research that can and will lead to many more discoveries and projects.
To cite one specific and compelling example: the collection includes a good deal of previously unpublished writing by Richard Wright, one of the 20th century’s most unique and impressive writers and voices. While literary discoveries are always possible, of course, I would imagine that most literary AmericanStudiers have shared my own feeling that all of Wright’s signficant writing had already been found and published in one form or another, that we had all we were going to get from this complex, singular talent. And then here comes this book, and this body of (for most of us) unread material by Wright (and many others). I have no idea what it will include, whether it will feel as individually and literarily meaningful as it is unquestionably historically and socially and culturally vital. I can’t wait to find out!
Next new book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!