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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August 22, 2017: Famous Virginians: Willa Cather



[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
On why it mattered when the famous author finally returned to Virginia.
Willa Cather was born and spent her first nine years of life near Winchester, Virginia, but she is far better known for writing about two other American settings. The family moved to Nebraska in 1883 (when she was nine), and the books that launched her literary career a few decades later were her second through fourth published novels, the Nebraska trilogy of O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). As far as I can tell she never lived for any length of time in the American Southwest, but she nonetheless wrote, in The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), two of the most prominent and important novels in English about that complex and compelling region. While Cather wrote seven other novels (including One of Ours, a Pulitzer-winning story of World War I), those five remain her most famous and frequently read, and so Cather has become closely and justifiably tied to the literary and communal histories of both the Nebraska plain and the Southwestern canyons.
There are of course numerous reasons why an author might hesitate to write about her childhood home, but one factor in Cather’s unwillingness to write about Virginia for almost her entire career might have been a reticence—or even perhaps an inability—to write about African Americans. In My Ántonia, for example—a novel that deals with nuance and grace with the ethnic heritages and communities of a number of immigrant character and families—we find Blind d’Arnault, an African American (or rather mulatto) pianist whom Cather describes in baldly stereotypical and even animalistic terms. Yet in what would be her last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather both returned finally to the setting of her childhood and linked that setting entirely to race: the body of the novel is set in antebellum Virginia and features the story of a mulatto enslaved woman (Nancy) who eventually escapes her jealous mistress (Sapphira) on the Underground Railroad to Canada; and the epilogue, set twenty-five years later in the postbellum South of Cather’s childhood, reveals the novel’s narrator to be a stand-in for Cather herself, who has (per the novel at least) heard stories of this slave and her escape throughout her young life.
I don’t want to overstate the cultural importance of Cather’s 1940 historical novel. This was the same year, after all, that saw the publication of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel that illustrates how far beyond the plantation tradition (in which Cather’s novel at least partly, if certainly uneasily, sits) African American and American literature had gone by this time. Yet at the same time, 1940 America (or at least its popular culture) was dominated by the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind, just as the prior few years had been dominated by Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Mitchell famously wrote to another Southern novelist, Thomas W. Dixon, that she was “practically raised on” his trilogy of racist historical novels, and she very much continued that particular Southern tradition in Gone. So it seems to me to be no small thing that when Willa Cather finally wrote a novel about her native Southern state, in the same era so influenced by Mitchell’s story, she chose to create a Southern slaveowning female protagonist who is far less attractive (in every sense) than Scarlett O’Hara, and again whom a young female slave wins an important and heroic victory.
Next Virginian tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?

Monday, August 21, 2017

August 21, 2017: Famous Virginians: Arthur Ashe



[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
On three ways Virginia’s and the nation’s African American community contributed to the development of one of our greatest athletes.
1)      Brookfield: After Ashe’s mother Mattie died of pre-eclampsia when he was just seven, he and his younger brother Johnnie were raised by their father Arthur Ashe Sr., a handyman and caretaker for Richmond’s Brookfield Park. Brookfield was the city’s largest African American park and playground, and featured four tennis courts where young Arthur started to demonstrate his natural talents. There Ron Charity, a student at the city’s historically black Virginia Union University and a Brookfield tennis instructor (and a future national champion himself), began to work with Arthur and helped him take his first steps into local tournaments. Racial segregation was a regional and national curse with legacies that echo into our own moment; but as so often, African Americans like Ashe and his family refused to allow such bigoted policies to stop them from following the arcs of their lives and identities.
2)      Whirlwind Johnson: Charity didn’t just begin coaching the young Arthur; he also brought him to the attention of Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, the pioneering African American physician who was also Althea Gibson’s coach and the founder of the American Tennis Association’s Junior Development Program. Johnson ran a tennis summer camp at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he invited rising junior stars (of all races, but with a particular emphasis on young African American players) to hone their skills. While Arthur had to attend the all-black Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, Johnson helped connect to a larger tennis community, as in 1958 when a 15 year old Arthur became the first African American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. It was Arthur’s first integrated tournament, and an indication of the personal and professional steps (as well as pioneering national progress) he was able to achieve with the help of Johnson.
3)      Richard Hudlin: Yet even for a player of Arthur’s unquestionable talent, many Virginia doors remained closed to a young African American in the late 1950s; he couldn’t use the city’s indoor courts, and wasn’t allowed to compete against white players in the city. So in 1960, Johnson connected Arthur to another tennis pioneer, Richard Hudlin. Hudlin had captained the University of Chicago’s tennis team in 1928 (despite being the only African American on the team throughout his time there), and had subsequently achieved one of the nation’s first athletic civil rights victories, winning a 1945 lawsuit against the St. Louis Muny Tennis Association that opened up that city’s public facilities and tournaments to all players. Arthur moved to St. Louis, attended Sumner High School for his senior year, and with Hudlin and Johnson’s help became the first African American player to compete in the national Interscholastic Tournament, helping Sumner win the title. The rest is history, but a history that, like these Virginia and African American origin points, should be far better known than it is.
Next Virginian tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?

Friday, August 18, 2017

August 18-20, 2017: Birthday Bests: 2016-2017



[On August 15th, this AmericanStudier turns the big 4-0. So this week I’ve shared posts of birthday favorites for each of the blog’s prior years, leading up to this new birthday best list for 2016-2017. You couldn’t give me a better present than to say hi and tell me a bit about what brings you to the blog, what you’ve found or enjoyed here, your own AmericanStudies thoughts, or anything else!]
Here they are, 40 favorite posts from the 2016-2017 year on the blog:
1)      Virginia Places: Fairfax Court House: Learning more about things I thought I already knew has been one of the blog’s enduring pleasures, and that was most definitely the case with this post and series on Virginia sites.
2)      Cultural Work: Miner Texts: Any post in which I get to analyze John Sayles and Steve Earle is bound to be fun, but Diane Gillam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom might be the richest text here.
3)      MusicalStudying: Allegiance and Hamilton: Perhaps not surprisingly, Hamilton has been the subject of more posts than any other text in the past year. This was the first.
4)      Rhode Island Histories: Beavertail Lighthouse: Learning about things I knew precisely nothing about has been another enduring blog pleasure. Case in point here.
5)      Legends of the Fall: Young Adult Lit: Returning to middle school is always a risky proposition, but I loved the chance to revisit A Separate Peace and The Chocolate War.
6)      AmericanStudying The Americans: “Illegals”: Writing about one of my favorite TV shows made for a great week of posts, and this kicked them off.
7)      Birth Control in America: Esther at the Doctor: I’ve taught Sylvia Plath’s The Bell-Jar many times, but analyzing it through this week’s lens offered new insights on a key sequence.
8)      Black Panther Posts: Guns and Breakfasts: One of my favorite post titles, and an attempt to address the multiple, contradictory sides of an important community.
9)      American Killers: Bundy and Dahmer: Not sure I would have ever imagined I’d be writing about serial killers in made for TV movies, but we go where the blog takes us!
10)   ElectionStudying the Media: Ah, that halcyon final pre-election weekend. Everything may have changed the following Tuesday, but I think this post is still relevant.
11)   Jeff Renye on Stranger Things: The New Weird Made Old?: A Stranger Things series concluded with this great Guest Post, and a truly inspiring student conversation in comments!
12)   Thanksgiving and Supporting an Inclusive American Community: This was the first post in which I dealt directly with the election’s aftermath, and also the first in which I began to move toward my fifth book project.
13)   James MonroeStudying: Remembering Monroe: A series on the 5th President concluded with these reflections on whether and how to better remember Monroe.
14)   Fall 2016 Reflections: Conversations with My Sons: Maybe my favorite single post from the six and two-thirds years of blogging.
15)   Basketball’s Birthday: LeBron and Activism: My sons have just gotten into the NBA in the past year, and it was fun to take a closer look at this side of the league’s biggest star.
16)   2016 in Review: The Cubs Win!: There were far more serious 2016 news stories, and I engaged with them in this end of year series as well. But c’mon, the Cubs won the Series!
17)   21st Century Ellis Islands: A 125th anniversary series concluded with three very distinct ways to connect the famous immigration station to our present moment.
18)   Special Guest Post: Oana Godeanu-Kenworty on Thomas Haliburton and 19th Century Populism: Readers, take note—nothing makes me happier than when I’m contacted by someone who wants to share a Guest Post, and I was very excited at the chance to share this one!
19)   Luke Cage Studying: #BlackLivesMatter on TV: A series on another great contemporary TV show concluded with this multitextual analysis.
20)   NASAStudying: Sputnik and von Braun: Another example of a post for which I learned a ton, and which fundamentally shifted my perspective on the week’s subject.
21)   Women and Sports: Title IX: With the groundbreaking law under siege from Trump’s Department of Education, this post is more important than ever.
22)   History for Kids: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker: The best book I read in the past year might well be this Young Adult novel the boys and I read together.
23)   AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Appalachian Action: Man, I wrote a lot this year about TV shows I love. And I’m not the slightest bit sorry!
24)   Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: The annual series concludes, as always, with my favorite crowd-sourced post of the year, the airing of grievances! Not too late to share yours!
25)   CubanAmericanStudying: Desi Arnaz: On Arnaz’s 100th birthday, he helped us consider a different side to Cuban American histories.
26)   AmericanStudies Events: Why We Teach at BOLLI: Expanding my adult learning opportunities has been one of the best parts of the last year. Here’s one prominent example!
27)   Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump: Sometimes a planned series of my own intersects with where the public conversations are going. This was one of those times.
28)   Televised Fools: Archer: I can’t say I was expecting to enjoy Archer as much as I have—but surprises are a good thing, in life and in blogging!
29)   NeMLA Recaps: Forum on Immigration Executive Orders and Actions: This could be the most important thing NeMLA ever does—but it needs your help to get there!
30)   Aviation Histories: Charles Lindbergh: For my own sake as much as anyone else’s, trying to dig past the controversies to recover the history behind the history.
31)   Animating History: Earth Day Animations: I hadn’t thought about Captain Planet or FernGully in a couple decades. It was fun to do so again!
32)   Civil Disobedience: Muhammad Ali: Commemorating anniversaries has become an important part of this blog, and the 50th of Ali’s draft resistance was an important one for sure.
33)   DisasterStudying: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: Did you know that William James experienced and wrote about the earthquake? Me neither!
34)   The Scholars Strategy Network and Me: Online Writing: This was a really fun reflection to write—and then it got picked up by John Fea’s great blog, which is even more fun!
35)   Star Wars Studying: Yoda, Luke, and Love: I loved the chance to share one of the boys’ and my favorite theories about one of our favorite galaxies.
36)   Matthew Teutsch’s Guest Post: Five African American Books We Should All Read: Getting to feature one of my favorite scholarly bloggers and five wonderful books made for a great Guest Post.
37)   The Pulitzers at 100: Angle of Repose: I’d been looking for a chance to write about Wallace Stegner’s moving novel for a while now. It was nice to finally do so!
38)   Mysterious Beach Reads: Tana French: Ditto French’s amazing series of novels—which are Irish, but AmericanStudies is large and contains multitudes.
39)   Representing the Revolution: Hamilton: I promised that the smash musical would return to this list, and return it did.
40)   Troubled Children: Dennis the Menace: Gotta end with another one of those posts I never would have imagined writing—and that, as always, I enjoyed a great deal. Hope you’d say the same!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. You know what to do!