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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May 5, 2015: NeMLA 2015 Recaps: Roundtable on Writing Prolifically

[This past weekend, the Northeast MLA held its annual spring conference in Toronto. I was there in my official capacity as the organization’s Vice President, as well as a presenter and audience member, and wanted to follow up on a handful of the many interesting things that took place. Leading up to a weekend post on how you can help me plan next year’s conference in Hartford!]
Three great pieces of advice from the roundtable “Strategies for Becoming a Prolific Writer,” at which I presented alongside Anna Strowe, Felipe Ruan, and Simona Wright:
1)      Interdisciplinarity: It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I made the case for thinking of and developing our work in interdisciplinary ways, but others on the panel (and in the audience) advanced elements of the same idea. For one thing, such thinking allows us to imagine connections, audiences, and avenues for our work that would be closed off if we defined ourselves in overly narrow or specialized ways. And for another, as I argued at the roundtable in response to a question about job market dangers of interdisciplinarity, increasingly institutions need faculty who can teach multiple things, wear multiple hats, extend their work in a variety of directions. All reasons to practice interdisciplinarity, I’d say!
2)      Rhizomatic Thinking: Simona specifically made the case for thinking of our scholarly work and identity in a rhizomatic way, with roots and branches that extend in multiple directions. This is partly another way of putting the interdisciplinary emphasis, but it would be possible and important to aim for rhizomatic thinking even within one discipline (or even a more specialized focus within one, on for example one specific author). Audience member Mark Fulk made a similar point, about the way that unexpected connections between our focus at any given moment and other ideas/subjects often prompts our writing and projects. And we can’t see such connections, much less pursue them, if we aren’t open to the rhizomatic approach Simona emphasized.
3)      Pleasure: All of the presenters made the case, in one way or another, for writing about what interests us, what we’re passionate about, what gives us pleasure. This might seem to be a given, but I don’t believe it is—too often, academic or scholarly writing reads and feels like a chore, to the author as well as the reader. The dissertation process itself seems geared in many ways to producing precisely such writing. Perhaps we can’t change the dissertation process (although we can and should consider it), but we can certainly redefine academic writing more broadly as something that should be interesting and pleasurable, to the author and then (and thus) to its readers.
All things I’ll bring with me into my ongoing and future writing for sure! Next recap tomorrow,
Ben

PS. Were you at NeMLA 2015? I’d love to hear your follow ups as well—or your thoughts on this post even if you weren’t there!

Monday, May 4, 2015

May 4, 2015: NeMLA 2015 Recaps: Italian American Inspirations

[This past weekend, the Northeast MLA held its annual spring conference in Toronto. I was there in my official capacity as the organization’s Vice President, as well as a presenter and audience member, and wanted to follow up on a handful of the many interesting things that took place. Leading up to a weekend post on how you can help me plan next year’s conference in Hartford!]
On three takeaways from Marica Antonucci’s excellent seminar on transnational Italian and American histories, with which my NeMLA conference began.
1)      Vincenzo Botta: Lucia Ducci of UMass Amherst began the seminar with a paper on Botta, an Italian American educator, journalist, author, and reformer about whose multi-part 19th century life and transnational influence I literally knew nothing before this talk (and I doubt I’m alone—even that Wikipedia page at the first link is pretty bare bones). In many ways Botta seems to me parallel to Yung Wing, and Ducci’s wonderful talk gave me lots of great starting points for continuing to think about this interesting and inspiring life, voice, and history.
2)      Tex: Tyler Norris of William and Mary presented a compelling analysis of Tex, the longest-running Italian comic book. Begun in 1948, this depiction of a heroic lone Texas Ranger making his way through multiple 19th century histories (Mexican American War, Civil War, Native American wars, etc.). Tex seems very much in conversation with other mid-20th century pop culture depictions of the frontier, from the TV show The Rifleman to John Ford’s series of John Wayne Westerns. But I’ll need to learn a lot more about what Tex and Italian culture do with those familiar tropes, work that Norris once again prompted and modeled.
3)      The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: Marisa Escolar of UNC Chapel Hill concluded the seminar by analyzing depictions of Italy and Italian American culture in post-WWII fiction and culture, a topic that interestingly complements the second book project of my colleague and friend Joe Moser. Escolar analyzed a number of books, films, and other texts, but I was particularly interested in her compelling take on both Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel and the 1956 Gregory Peck film of the same name. As with Botta and Tex, I know more or less nothing about these texts, but Escolar and this seminar have prompted me to learn more!
Those three papers, along with David Aliano’s on early 20th century tourism materials and Roberto Vezzani’s on the “New Italy” in Fascist propaganda, got my NeMLA off to an inspiring start for sure. Next recap tomorrow,
Ben

PS. Were you at NeMLA 2015? I’d love to hear your follow ups as well—or your thoughts on this post even if you weren’t there!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

May 2-3, 2015: April 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
March 30: April Fools: Stooges and Marxes: An April Fools series on American humor kicks off with two talented and significant groups of siblings.
March 31: April Fools: The Interview: The series continues with what’s problematic, and what’s important, about the controversial recent comedy.
April 1: April Fools: Keaton and Chaplin: Mining the past or the present for laughs, and why we need both, as the series rolls on.
April 2: April Fools: Minstrel Shows: What we do with comic art that’s just not funny any more.
April 3: April Fools: James Thurber: The series concludes with three ways the unique humorist captured the human condition.
April 4-5: Crowd-sourced April Fools: An addendum of mine and funny responses from fellow AmericanFools—add your foolish-in-the-best-sense thoughts in comments!
April 6: Baseball Lives: Hank Greenberg: A series on meaningful baseball lives starts with why we should remember one of the first and greatest Jewish American athletes.
April 7: Baseball Lives: Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige: The series continues with what we can never know about Negro Leagues lives, and what we definitely can.
April 8: Baseball Lives: John Rocker: Three distinct, contradictory, and important stages in a controversial baseball life, as the series rolls on.
April 9: Baseball Lives: Cuban and Japanese Stars: Two recent communities of international stars, and the different historical contexts to which we can connect them.
April 10: Baseball Lives: Maria Pepe and Mo’ne Davis: The series concludes with two young stars who reflect how much has changed, and why we must remember both.
April 11-12: Tim McCaffrey’s Guest Post on Jackie Robinson: Extending the series with one of my favorite past Guest Posts, on a less well-remembered moment in one of our most inspiring baseball lives.
April 13: New AmericanStudies Books: Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution: A series on great new AmericanStudies books starts with one that helps us understand a crucial Early Republic question.
April 14: New AmericanStudies Books: States of Trial: The series continues with a book that exemplifies both international and interdisciplinary AmericanStudies.
April 15: New AmericanStudies Books: Belligerent Muse: A new book that complements a classic one, and what they offer us together, as the series rolls on.
April 16: New AmericanStudies Books: Chinese Yankee: The book that corrects a significant historical omission—and why that’s not even its best effect.
April 17: New AmericanStudies Books: Cowardice: A Brief History: The series concludes with a book that reminds us of the value of looking at things from the other side.
April 18-19: Crowd-sourced AmericanStudies Reading List: In my latest Crowd-sourced post, fellow AmericanStudiers share their own book recommendations—add yours in comments, please!
April 20: Patriot’s Day Special Post: My annual Patriot’s Day special post, on the easier and harder forms of patriotism.
April 21: How Would a Patriot Act?: Squanto: A series on nominees for genuine American patriotism starts with a 17th century cross-cultural patriot.
April 22: How Would a Patriot Act?: Quock Walker: The series continues with the 18th century patriot who also represents an alternative, vital kind of Founder.
April 23: How Would a Patriot Act?: Yung Wing: The many reasons to remember one of my favorite Americans as a 19th century patriot, as the series rolls on.
April 24: How Would a Patriot Act?: César Chávez: The series concludes with why it’s so important to remember the labor activist as a 20th century patriot.
April 25-26: How Would a Patriot Act?: You: But wait, a special weekend post on a contemporary American patriot—you!
April 27: Communist Culture: “The Palace-Burner”: A May Day series on communism in American culture kicks off with one of my favorite poems and images of difference and empathy.
April 28: Communist Culture: Dos Passos and Wright: The series continues with two authors and lives that trace the appeals and limitations of communism in the 1930s.
April 29: Communist Culture: Doctorow and Coover: Two distinct but complementary historical fictions of the Rosenbergs, as the series rolls on.
April 30: Communist Culture: The Blithedale Romance: How Hawthorne’s autobiographical novel of his experience with communism differed from his prior romances, and how it connects to them.
May 1: Communist Culture: Woody Guthrie and Steve Earle: The series concludes communist protest anthems and artists, then and now.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered on the blog? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know

Friday, May 1, 2015

May 1, 2015: Communist Culture: Woody Guthrie and Steve Earle

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On communist protest anthems and artists, then and now.
In one of my earliest blog posts, I nominated Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1944)—ideally the version with all the verses, but I was willing to settle for the more commonly accepted shortened version—as a new national anthem. I have been interested to see that both of my sons have learned and performed the song (in that shortened version) in their elementary school music classes, as I vaguely remember doing in my own. Because the truth is that, even without the usually excluded verse about the “No trespassing” sign that has nothing written on the back, “This Land” offers what we would have to call a communist vision of America: as a place that is fundamentally shared by all of us, owned not as private property or competitive resource but as a communal space that “belongs to you and me.” By 1944, communism had already come to be closely associated with (if not entirely tied to) the Soviet Union, and thus to an explicit alternative to American identity, making Guthrie’s song a subtle but (to my mind) definite protest anthem.
Far, far less subtle is Steve Earle’s song “Christmas in Washington” (1997), which in its chorus implores, “Come back Woody Guthrie/Come back to us now/Tear your eyes from paradise/And rise again somehow.” Earle’s song is about the need for new protest anthems at the turn of the 21st century, as well as representing an attempt to offer precisely such a new anthem, and besides the request of Guthrie’s ghost Earle’s speaker also calls for the return of a pair of early 20th century communist activists: “So come back Emma Goldman/Rise up old Joe Hill/The barricades are going up/They cannot break our will.” Which is to say, while protest songs can of course take any number of different political and social perspectives, Earle ties both his and Guthrie’s protest anthems much more specifically to communism—not, again, in the Soviet sense, but rather in an emphasis on radical activisms (both labor and social) and their concurrent arguments for social and economic equality.
Earle’s song is even less likely than the full version of Guthrie’s to become a new national anthem (and, to be clear, much less powerful than Guthrie’s as well, especially in the much-too-specific late 1996 setting of its opening verse). But one significant benefit of playing the two songs back to back is the reminder that Guthrie wasn’t just a unifying American voice—he certainly wanted to be and (I would argue) was that, but he did so through offering a radical, protesting perspective, one that it is no stretch to call communist. Which, like all of the week’s texts and artists in their own interconnected ways, would remind us that communism has not been just some external threat to the United States—that it has also, and far more importantly, been a multi-century thread and presence in our own society and identity, an American community and perspective deserving of the extended attention and analysis that these cultural works help provide.
April Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 30, 2015: Communist Culture: The Blithedale Romance

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On the novel that significantly shifted an author’s career—and yet its continuity with his two prior masterpieces.
Nearly a century before Richard Wright published his autobiographical essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944), Nathaniel Hawthorne published a semi-autobiographical novel that could have been titled the exact same thing. Between April and November 1841, Hawthorne lived at George and Sophia Ripley’s West Roxbury, Massachusetts utopian experiment Brook Farm; the experiment brought together many other prominent Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Hawthorne’s experience with the Brook Farm community (which continued for another six years or so after his depature) was mixed, as reflected both in the letters he wrote while there to his future wife Sophia Peabody and in his subsequent description of the period as “essentially a daydream, and yet a fact.” And just over a decade later, he would portray a strikingly similar utopian community in The Blithedale Romance (1852).
Blithedale was Hawthorne’s third romance in three years—following The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851)—and marked a significant shift from the prior two. I would categorize both of them as historical romances: Scarlet quite overtly, as it is set more than two hundred years prior to its publication date; and Gables in its central use of the Salem Witch Trials, a history which Hawthorne calls in the novel’s famous Preface “a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad day-light, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist.” Blithedale, on the other hand, is not only set in its own historical moment but centrally focused on engaging with, challenging, and at times satirizing that moment’s philosophies and ideals, most especially those of both Transcendentalism and communism. Perhaps to aid in that sense of present grounding, Hawthorne likewise shifts from the earlier novels’ third-person narrators to a semi-autobiographical (if also quite complex) first-person one, Miles Coverdale, who narrates for us his own experiences of the Blithedale utopian community.
But if Blithedale is interestingly distinct from the two novels that preceded it, I would nonetheless argue that reading it in relationship to those historical romances helps us analyze how Hawthorne chooses to depict his socially realistic topic. After all, both earlier novels likewise featured realistic historical subjects—community in Puritan New England and the causes and legacies of the Witch Trials—but portrayed them through what Hawthorne described, in that Gables Preface, as the Romance’s “right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (in contrast to the Novel, which he argues “is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity … to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”). Literary historians have long sought to pin down which Blithedale character is which historical figure—Zenobia is Fuller! Hollingsworth is Ripley! and so on—but Hawthorne’s definition of the Romance would lead us in a different direction: to consider instead how he bends the historical realities of that place and time into a new, more Romantic shape, “manages his atmospherical medium” to present “the truth of the human heart.” Like both prior novels, that is, Blithedale ultimately presents the human heart of its histories—an important achievement indeed.
Last cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 29, 2015: Communist Culture: Doctorow and Coover

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On two distinct but complementary postmodern historical novels.
As I wrote in this post on American hypocrites, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991-1993) includes one of the most searing and tragic depictions of McCarthyism: Kushner’s portrayal of Roy Cohn, and most especially of Cohn’s literally and figuratively haunting conversations with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose conviction and demise a young Cohn helped ensure and who becomes in Kushner’s imagining the last “person” to speak with Cohn before his own death from AIDS. And Kushner isn’t alone is capitalizing upon Ethel Rosenberg’s literary and symbolic qualities, as the famous communist (whether guilty of espionage or not, she certainly was that) and her husband also occupy a complex and central place in two of the most significant late 20th century American historical novels: E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977).
Scholar Linda Hutcheon developed a new category, “historiographic metafiction,” to describe postmodern historical novels, works that put history and fiction in complex and often playful interrelationship and that do so in self-aware and –reflective ways. Both Doctorow’s and Coover’s novels fit aspects of this category, but in very different ways: Doctorow’s novel is narrated by the son of a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs (known in his novel as the Isaacsons), and it is the narrator Daniel’s awareness of his own project, audience, and historical significance that makes the book truly postmodern; whereas Coover’s novel’s most prominent characters include not only Ethel Rosenberg but also Richard Nixon (who serves as one of the text’s main perspectives) and Uncle Sam (who is a folksy and vulgar chorus of sorts, appearing periodically to comment on the action). Needless to say, despite their shared subject matter, only one of the novels produced a significant controversy upon its publication.
Yet if we consider that shared subject matter, and more exactly the question of how fiction can help us engage with difficult and divisive historical subjects more generally, it seems to me that Doctorow’s and Coover’s books complement each other quite nicely. Coover’s is biting and angry, lashing out at the kinds of hysterias and extremes that McCarthyism exemplified (whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or not) and that Uncle Sam’s America has always included. Doctorow’s is intimate and tragic, considering the legacies of such histories on the individuals and families, as well as the communities and nation, that experience them. Coover focuses on the most public moments and figures, Doctorow on the most private effects and lives. Together, they help us remember that every American history and issue, even the Cold War boogeyman of communism, became and remains a part of our communal and human landscapes as well.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April 28, 2015: Communist Culture: Dos Passos and Wright

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On two strikingly parallel yet also importantly distinct 1930s to ‘50s American arcs.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, despite our longstanding collective national antagonism toward communism there have been both moments and communities in which the political philosophy has had substantially broader and deeper appeal. In the 1930s, two such factors came together to help produce a sizeable and vocal cohort of writers and intellectuals who embraced communism: the Great Depression’s heightening of wealth inequalities and social stratification seemed to highlight the limitations and even destructive capabilities of unchecked capitalism, leading a number of American writers and artists to imagine and depict alternative social and communal ways of living; and those economic woes, coupled with the continued destructive forces of segregation, lynching, and other communal ills and threats, led many African Americans similarly to seek an alternative to the dominant American systems.
Those responses happened (and thus differed) within multiple communities, but they can be succinctly illustrated by two individuals, writers whose most significant novels bookend the 1930s in American literature and culture. John Dos Passos had been publishing fiction since the mid-1920s, but it was the trilogy that came to be collected as U.S.A. (1938)—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—that exemplified both his stylistic experimentation and his socialistic philosophies. Richard Wright launched his career with the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) but truly entered the literary stratosphere two years later with Native Son (1940), the best-selling and hugely controversial novel that features both one of American literature’s most eloquent defenders of communism (in the lawyer Max) and a character (protagonist Bigger Thomas) whose tragic and brutal arc makes numerous, purposefully ineloquent but nonetheless compelling arguments for the philosophy.
In the 1940s to 50s, both writers famously broke with those philosophies and with the Communist Party: Wright in one pivotal moment, the essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944); and Dos Passos more gradually, in a series of public statements and positions that culminated in his qualified support for Joseph McCarthy (among other turning points). Yet I would also argue that their shifts represent two quite distinct personal and national narratives: Dos Passos genuinely seemed, in response to World War II, the Cold War, and other factors, to change in his political and social perspectives; whereas to my mind Wright’s perspectives remained largely unchanged, and he came instead to see, as does for example Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Communist Party as an imperfect and indeed failed vehicle through which to seek such political and social change. Such a distinction would of course become even more important in the 1960s, when a new generation of African American activists found anew a compelling alternative in American socialism.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?