Monday, January 31, 2011
In the era of the reservation system and missionary schools designed to separate young Native Americans from their culture and language and heritage, the era when Chief Joseph had been caught and Geronimo had been killed, the era when Sitting Bull had become a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the Ghost Dance meant hope. Inspired by the teachings of a prophet named Jack Wilson (Wovoka), a man who advocated peaceful and spiritual resistance to encroaching white presences and pressures, and originating among Wilson’s Nevada Paiute tribe in the late 1880s, the religious movement known as the Ghost Dance spread among numerous Western tribes, becoming by the early 1890s a hugely cross-cultural force and influence. Each tribe made the Dance their own in crucial ways, connecting it to existing customs and beliefs and practices, but each continued to call it the Ghost Dance and to perform core elements of the ritual, illustrating its broadly communal potential as a rejuvenating force for Native Americans who—whatever their tribe—were trying to find a way to exist in a late 19th century America that seemed intent on destroying every element of their identities.
For the US government, as represented both by the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs—two entities who could in many ways be seen as having spent the prior few decades jointly working toward the destruction of Native American existence; that’s something of a reduction when it comes to the BIA, for which for example my first Hall of Inspiration nominee Ely Parker worked during the Grant Administration, but far too often the BIA did seem to work in direct opposition to Native rights and interests—, the Ghost Dance thus meant danger. When in 1890 the Dance came to the Lakota Sioux, a tribe whose lands the government had been attempting to wrest away for many years, it seemed to illustrate the tribe’s potential for resistance and even war; ironically and tragically, the principal step taken by the government to quell such potential, sending Native policemen to arrest the aging chief Sitting Bull, resulted instead in his death and in hugely and justifiably inflamed tensions on the reservation. All of these factors and many more led to the December 29, 1890 massacre of over 150 Lakota Sioux (many of them women and children) at Wounded Knee Creek, but the most telling single detail of that horrific and tragic event is that the Sioux were performing a Ghost Dance when the firing began.
For the Native American Renaissance, the literary and cultural resurgence (at least for a broad national audience) of Native voices and artists in the 1970s that coincided with the political and social activism of the American Indian Movement and marked the start of a very different (if still deeply conflicted) era in our national identity and community as connected to all these issues and histories, Wounded Knee meant a seminal point of origin. Dee Brown’s historical, autobiographical, activist and artistic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) was a national phenomenon, a bestseller in hardcover for over a year, a text that did not shy away from—indeed narrated in every chapter—the darkest and most brutal stories and histories of America’s treatment of and relationship with Native tribes and peoples and communities (including, in its culminating section, the massacre at Wounded Knee) but that connected with audiences in profound, broad, and lasting ways (the book remains in print 40 years later and has been translated into nearly 20 languages). Brown’s book did more than signal and help inaugurate the successes of writers such as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor and Louise Erdrich, Paula Gunn Allen and Vine Deloria, Jr.; it also, along with the works of those and many other hugely talented Native American voices, offered and helped constitute a space in which we could begin, as a nation, to confront some of the ghosts that we had for far too long relegated to the darkest corners of our closets.
Each of these three topics—Brown’s book, Wounded Knee, and the Ghost Dance—deserves our continued attention, both on its own complex terms and because of all the stories and histories and identities and communities to which it can connect us. But in the best of all worlds, we would try to understand an America that is defined by the combination of all three and what they can illustrate about who we have been and are: defined by heritages and beliefs struggling to find significance and meaning in an evolving national community, by divisive and violent events that have resulted far too often from such struggles and given the lie to our most idealized versions of what we are, and by texts and voices that have forced us to confront those realities but also have exemplified the possibility of bringing all our American heritages into our present and future. More tomorrow, on the urban riots that succinctly illustrated many of the deep-seated tensions of the turbulent 60s—the 1860s, that is.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) A great site on the Ghost Dance: http://www.ghostdance.us/
2) A multimedia and very rich site on Wounded Knee: http://www.woundedkneemuseum.org/index.htm
3) Google book of the illustrated version of Brown’s book: http://books.google.com/books?id=JUkoA29CFRsC&pg=PR8&lpg=PR8&dq=bury+my+heart+at+wounded+knee&source=bl&ots=AtAwpitkwK&sig=pfEeZiXoYnhkIBs7NwsULWm7sBk&hl=en&ei=dd1FTfjbK4L6lweWnrQ-&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q&f=false
4) OPEN: Any ghost stories to share?
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Since I started my job at Fitchburg State and so started having a two-hour-a-day commute, I’ve become a relatively devoted listener to one of the main local sports radio stations (among the other three or four radio stations between which I flip for most of that drive), and in particular (because of the timing) to the morning show on that station. When the two hosts talk sports I find them pretty interesting and engaging; when they talk politics or culture (which they do a good bit) I find them so infuriating and ignorant as to produce my own version of road rage. But in these five and a half years of listening, I’ve only gotten worked up enough to call in one time: they were reading a newspaper story on the salaries of UMass faculty members and complaining about overpaid professors who do nothing to earn their exorbitant wages. As I told them when I called in, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a dumber fifteen minutes of conversation, nor one based on such complete ignorance and misrepresentation of every detail and factor. Hell, at one point one of the hosts said, “And this guy’s just a plain Professor, he’s not even an Assistant or Associate Professor!” The stupid, it burns.
I bring this up not to complain about false perceptions of academic gigs (rampant as I have often found them to be), nor even to complain about us being underpaid (which, at least in the Mass. State College/University system, we definitely are), but rather to transition into one of the most annoying narratives in our contemporary culture: the argument that we as a society need to hold teachers (at every level) more “accountable.” It seems to me that if we’re going to pay teachers so little to do a job that we all agree is hugely important to our national future and success, we should at least offer them, in the main, support and help rather than judgment and critique. Moreover, the drive to hold teachers “accountable” has, at a public institution like Fitchburg State at least, mainly meant that a cohort of outside agencies and observers, many with virtually no specific or relevant knowledge of what happens in college classrooms, descend on our campuses periodically to demand that we produce assessment data that can prove both that we’re doing what we say we do and that we know where we could be doing it better and are working to improve in those areas. I agree that those are important goals; I just tend to think that the time we spend producing and preparing the data about them for the outside folks might be better spent actually working toward the goals, among the other things we layabout professors do with our time.
And yet—yes, even with a topic like this one, I’ve got one of those patented AmericanStudies twists coming—I think that being part of assessment processes (both in my department and for our college’s Gen Ed curriculum) for many years has been hugely meaningful and productive for me. That’s true partly for reasons that have little to do with the specifics of the processes—getting a chance to work at length with colleagues, to find out their perspectives on core aspects of teaching and the college and our profession, to have a chance to articulate my own such perspectives more fully than I might otherwise be asked to do. But I have to admit that the processes themselves have had pretty unexpected and significant value—allowing me to spend a good bit of time examining student work, not through the lens of a grader nor with the attachment to a student or class, but rather from a more objective and analytical perspective; forcing me to examine and challenge and expand my ideas about what constitutes successful work (for an English major, for a Liberal Arts & Sciences student, and so on), and to consider when and how such work can be best drawn out and what it means when we’re failing to do so as well as we could. These are pretty important questions to ask ourselves, and I don’t know if I’d take the time to ask them of myself without these prompts to do so.
I’d still rather ask those questions and produce our answers and figure out what to do with them on our own terms, without feeling as if we’re doing so to prove to a bureaucrat somewhere that we are indeed “accountable.” But I guess I have to recognize the likelihood that without the outside pressures we might not get the chance to have these conversations—and if I take that into account, assessment feels like it can be a very valuable part of my career after all. Wouldn’t mind if they paid me a bit more to do it, though. More tomorrow, on a powerful ritual, a brutal day, and the book that mirrors them both.
PS. Not gonna make you read any assessment materials in links here. But any thoughts on these national narratives of accountability in education would be, as responses here always will be, much appreciated.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
[Mike Parker has been many things over the 10 years that this AmericanStudier has known him: a graduate student in creative writing; an educator-in-training; an editorial assistant at a major university press; a student of and researcher into psychological science; a graduate student in social work; and, at present, part of an emergency response unit for mental health crises in Portland, Oregon. He’s also recently the proud father of a beautiful mixed-race little fella who, yes, rivals the two boys above in cuteness. But throughout he’s been deeply invested in America’s identity (past, present, and future) and in writing about the world as he sees and imagines it.]
The funny thing about democracy is that it tends to provide folks in the majority group with most of the power. America is no exception where much of the power that Whites have enjoyed has resulted from simply having a numbers advantage in a democratic system. By power, I don’t mean to suggest that all Whites have grown up “privileged” or “rich.” But, as a professor of mine once defined it, “power is the ability to avoid discomfort.” And Whites, despite their own socioeconomic and political differences, have collectively enjoyed the “comfort” of knowing that they could lay claim over this country’s past, its present, and its future. But times they are a-changing. In an age when the first Black president needed only 42% of the White vote to win election, and when Whites are predicted to become outnumbered by minority groups by 2050, the power that Whites have so long enjoyed in this country has clearly become diminished. Add to this the increasingly frightening terrorist tactics that have emerged from extremist groups in some marginalized communities, and Whites have suddenly found themselves in a new world that is testing the limits of their belief in America’s rich history of tolerance, democracy, liberalism, and freedom (note: while, of course, I also believe in the country’s rich tradition of conservatism, I would argue that current climate is, rather than testing this specific tradition, actually encouraging a rather extreme version of it). And yet, while all signs point to a new America where non-Whites will wield real political power, Whites for the moment still largely control this country’s direction. So the question becomes: ‘How will Whites deal with having to share their power, as this becomes more and more the case?’ ‘Will they handle it like adults, or children?’ The evidence thus far has been less than encouraging.
For me, the most concerning (and most-self destructive as I will argue) manifestation of modern American White anxiety has been the sudden but certain rise of anti-government sentiment in the White mainstream since the election of Barrack Obama. For the past two years we have seen it on the picket signs of Tea Party protestors and in the messages of Right-wing commentators. Just around the time of January 20, 2009, something changed in the tone of the relationship between Whites and the nation’s government. An angry and somewhat disturbing message began to gain steam: that the government had somehow changed on the day that Obama took office. It was on that day that the new President began his socialist agenda that would overwhelm the populous with taxes, take away their right to bear arms, and, of course, push that Healthcare Bill right through Congress. And, this new anti-government rage has not stopped its critique with the policies of the Obama administration. It has widened, and White folks are now openly talking about dismantling Social Security, the Department of Education, and the IRS. And the “crazy” thing here is that we are no longer talking about the paranoid and delusional ramblings of some guy on a street corner. We are talking about elected officials from the Tea Party and the highest rated news programs on cable in Fox News.
All of this critique of government under the Obama administration could be viewed outside of a racial paradigm if it at least resembled the political discourse under Bush and Clinton. That is to say that all policies will always have their critics. And there are valid and compelling counterpoints to the current spending approach to our recession, and some very genuine disagreement with the country’s bailout of banks and General Motors. But the reality is that if so many people were upset about the stimulus plan, why didn’t they take notice when Bush introduced it? If the national debt is a major issue for Americans, why were they not upset when it rose during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr., and not celebratory when it was reduced under the Clinton administration. If people are so strongly against Social Security, the Department of Education, the IRS, Welfare, Medicaid, and all of the government-funded programs that help vulnerable and minority groups in this increasingly impersonal culture, why were they not picketing in the streets during ever single presidency of recent memory?
The truth, I would argue, is that White Americans are not so much upset about “Government” as they are upset about Democracy when it does not provide them with control over the country’s direction. Take Healthcare, for example. The Law was developed by a Senate committee, not the President, and it received the majority of votes in Congress that, like any other bill, it needed to become law. And yet, the message from its White critics has been that “Obamacare” was somehow “pushed through” Congress. It just wouldn’t sound good to say “I don’t like democracy when Barrack Obama, instead of George Bush or John McCain is signing the legislation” now would it? But of course Whites have flocked to their polling stations for the mid-terms and they’ve succeeded in electing a bunch of conservative, White congressman to go to Washington and repeal that “government takeover of healthcare.” The only problem is that Obama actually signed into law a pretty conservative bill that is based on a competitive, open-market approach to healthcare, and one that has been championed by conservatives in the past. Whether or not all of these new, White, conservative congressman will come to realize that the healthcare law is a pretty ideal approach to healthcare according to their own supposed principles, or whether or not they will even care in the face of their White anxiety, remains to be seen.
The irony of all of this White drama is that, instead of spending all of their energy trying to repeal the new healthcare law, White folks should instead be working to uphold those American policies that protect racial, economic, and religious minorities, and all other vulnerable groups: Social Security, Affirmative Action, Medicaid, and yes, now the Healthcare Reform Law. Because the reality stands, Good old fashioned White, straight, Christians, no matter how much of a fuss they make, will become a minority group in this country. Despite all of the attempts from Whites to narrow the definition of America, the fabric of our country will continue to diversify. Whites will continue to see more unfamiliar cultural events, and to hear more different languages being spoken in their home towns. They will notice more religious buildings that do not have crosses, and more same-sex couples. And they will see more Americans of varying shades of black, brown, red and yellow. They will notice these folks on their streets, in elected positions, and sitting behind desks when they go in for interviews. And as long as Whites themselves work to ensure it, this will still be America. It will still be a free democracy. It will still be a place of upward mobility and healthy competition. Heterosexual Christians will still be allowed to marry the opposite sex in a church. And all Americans will continue to strive to master English as the language that connects us with one another. And, hopefully for Whites, there will still be a well-funded government that ensures their safety, their well-being, and their rights as a racial minority. That is, if Whites don’t destroy it themselves.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) The stats: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1110177520080212
2) Signs of the times: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/16/tea-party-signs-the-most_n_539770.html#s81635&title=undefined
3) This one speaks for itself: http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/stupidquotes/a/glenn-beck-quotes.htm
4) OPEN: Any thoughts, takes, or responses?
Friday, January 28, 2011
Finding an audience, being read and remembered, is of course a central if not the central goal of all of us who write or seek to share our voices with the world in any medium, but it can without question be a double-edged sword in all sorts of ways. Steven King, for example, has written extensively about the experience of being defined so fully as a horror writer that it becomes hugely difficult to publish (and even to a degree write) anything else. A heightened sense of audience expectations based on the success of his first novel, Invisible Man (1952), seems to have crippled Ralph Ellison’s ability to finish any of his subsequent novels (which were all published only after he had died). But those audience-driven problems at least arose during the writers’ lives, making it possible (if certainly not easy) for them to respond, to write out of those boxes, to find new audiences or challenge their existing ones, or even, of course, to ignore audience demands or responses (as much as any writer can).
Infinitely—eternally, even—more difficult is when a sizeable and multi-generational audience latches onto a particular, not necessarily representative text and uses it to define the writer’s whole career and perspective after the writer has passed away. This is a potential problem for any writer whose works are (or, more exactly for this problem, one of whose works is) frequently anthologized—and if that writer was also a preacher, and thus produced literally tens of thousands of sermons among his many other written works, the danger of one of those sermons being turned into his anthologized, career-defining work is both greater and significantly more unfair. And that’s precisely what has happened with Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theological philosopher and writer, one of the 18th century’s leading intellectuals, and a principal influence on the First Great Awakening, the nation’s most widespread and democratic religious movement. Yet for generations of American schoolchildren—and since those schoolchildren tend to grow up to be adults, for generations of Americans period—Edwards has meant one thing and one thing only: the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), a fire-and-brimstone, extremely dramatic, old-school Puritanical text that Edwards delivered in Enfield, Connecticut in the midst of the First Great Awakening.
“Sinners” certainly captures a particular and powerful side of Edwards the preacher, and illustrates without question why he was able to produce such significant fervor and conversion rates during the Great Awakening. But it’s likely that any number of fellow preachers, in that era and in American history more generally, could have and did deliver very similar sermons, some week in and week out. It is instead in both the breadth and the quality of his interests and ideas and writings, as well as his wide range of forward-thinking opinions (on issues such as women’s rights and roles in the church, Native Americans, and scientific discoveries), that Edwards outstrips any other American theologian and would greatly enrich modern audiences’ perspectives on faith, spirituality, and the church in America’s history and identity. Edwards at his best (which was most of the time) combined the theological rigor of the Puritans with many of the Enlightenment’s most important advances, including those aforementioned opinions but also an abiding interest in aesthetics and a willingness to recognize the role of personal emotion and perspectives (what Edwards sometimes called “the affections”) in determining the shape and course of one’s faith. Even his tragically early death at the age of 54 was the result of his impressive openness and desire to lead his fellow citizens into better paths—having just taken over the Presidency of Princeton College from his son-in-law Aaron Burr (the father to the future Founding Father and Vice President of the same name), Edwards decided to demonstrate the need for a new medical innovation, smallpox inoculations, by getting one himself, but died from the resulting infection.
Edwards’ literary future and identity are of course out of his hands, as all of ours will one day be (and if I had to accept that gaining a multi-century audience would mean that they’d only be reading one blog post, well, I might take that deal). But on the other hand, they remain very much in our collective hands, and the more we can try to reconnect with the much richer and more impressive works and career and man behind “Sinners,” the closer we can get to inhabiting the kind of America for which Edwards consistently worked. More tomorrow, the second Saturday guest post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of “Sinners”: http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4yMTo0Ny53amVv
2) A comprehensive collection of Edwards’ writings at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center; just the list alone illustrates his breadth and depth: http://edwards.yale.edu/research/browse
3) OPEN: Any other writers who are unfairly linked to or defined by one text?
Thursday, January 27, 2011
This is perhaps not a particularly bold position, but I have to say that both our official and one of our unofficial but most prominent national anthems—“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” respectively (the latter has been supplanted I suppose by “God Bless America,” but my issues with that song and sentiment are distinct and for a different post)—are pretty terrible. I’m not assessing their musical qualities, both because that’s well outside of any areas of expertise of mine and because I don’t think that’s especially important when it comes to national anthems. I’m not even (shockingly, for me) analyzing their lyrics too specifically—certainly both are full of bombastic and hyperbolic moments, to say nothing of the deeply bizarre descriptions in “Beautiful” (“purple mountain majesties”? “the fruited plain”?), but that’s par for the course when it comes to anthems. No, when I say that these songs are pretty terrible, I mean as expressions of national identity.
I understand the ways in which a flag can come to stand in for a nation, although (as I wrote in that long-ago post on the Pledge) I think that such symbolism shouldn’t necessarily become too blindly accepted or passed down. But “Banner” focuses so fully on the flag that it has room for only the briefest and most generalizing kinds of engagement with the nation and community for which it’s supposed to stand—“the land of the free and the home of the brave” is a nice but pretty vacant sentiment, not least because I have to imagine that the British soldiers trying to take down that flag over Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812 were probably just as brave as their American counterparts (and of course neither nation had yet abolished slavery at this time, so the competition for the land of the free was likewise tight). And while I agree with the main sentiment behind “Beautiful,” that there are lots of impressive natural landscapes under our spacious skies, the balance of its lines falls far too fully toward those fruited plans and not nearly enough toward the people who populate them. Again, such problems are in many ways inevitable when it comes to national anthems, but as Americans we do have an alternative, a national song that parallels many of these elements but defines our core identity much more satisfactorily: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1944).
The main and most frequently reprinted verses of Guthrie’s song, which he wrote in direct response to “God Bless America,” do focus largely on the nation’s natural landscapes and beauties, but unlike “Beautiful” Guthrie grounds that admiration very explicitly and powerfully in Americans’ experiences and perspectives, on two key levels: the speaker’s own vision of the nation as he traveled throughout it, “roamed and rambled and followed [his] footsteps”; and the song’s titular and most repeated sentiments, that all of that beauty is ours and yours, that it “belongs to you and me.” Within that context, the “voice” that sounds and chants those repeated lines, while just as spiritual as “God Bless America” and as overtly symbolic as the flag, speaks directly and concretely to these living, breathing, wandering Americans, to the speaker and to his traveling companion (you). Even in that most reprinted version of the song, then—the one that ends with the “California to the New York Island” verse—America becomes not only beautiful and symbolic but also human and communal, in the best senses. But then there are the additional verses, which extend and deepen that human element: the earliest known recording of the song, a 1944 version held at the Smithsonian, includes a verse in which the speaker steps around a sign that reads “private property” to realize that “on the back side it didn’t say nothing”; and Guthrie’s original manuscript for the song included two more verses, one which begins “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway” and the other where the speaker has “seen [his] people” standing “there hungry … by the relief office.” All three of these verses remind us of the stakes of a truly communal vision of American identity, make clear that such a vision—and an anthem that expresses it—require the fullest and bravest meanings of freedom and democracy.
I know that the likelihood of 35,000 people standing in unison at Fenway Park and singing about condoning trespassing and witnessing lines at the relief office is not great. And I’m not unreasonable, I’d be more than happy with the rest of Guthrie’s song as the national anthem; it does everything that we expect of an anthem while better capturing the genuinely communal and shared experience of America that we should demand of one. Who’s up for a national campaign? After all, this song was made for you and me. More tomorrow, on the brilliant spiritual philosopher who has far too often been reduced to being the hype man for an angry God.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) An audio version of Guthrie and the song (minus the additional verses): http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010446/default.html
2) Bruce, Pete Seeger, and Seeger’s grandson perform the full version at the Obama Inaugural: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thsKDYapXz4
3) OPEN: Any other nominees for a new anthem?
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
There are all sorts of reasons why authors create dense and difficult works, or perhaps more exactly why those authors refuse to simplify such works when faced with editorial critiques or resistant audiences. To cite three examples about which I’ve blogged in earlier posts: Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in one of her more straightforward and clear phrases (ever, but I mean specifically in their long correspondence), that when she “put [her poems] in the gown” (dressed them up for another person’s, in this case his, reading), “they look alike and numb”; for me that’s as good an explanation as we could get for why Dickinson wasn’t willing to accede to his editorial suggestions. I believe (and argued in my first article) that Faulkner made Absalom, Absalom! as difficult as he did for more thematic reasons: because he was trying to get at core elements of Southern and American identity that were as painful and in many ways frightening for him as they are for Quentin Compson at that novel’s end. And the manuscript of George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes, which includes the extended conversations and debates he had with his publishers’ two readers, highlights just how necessary to his historical and regional and political goals he felt that the novel’s difficult and multi-layered use of dialect to be.
And then there’s Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925). Stein wrote the novel between 1906 and 1908 but didn’t publish it until nearly two decades later, mostly because she couldn’t find a publisher that was willing to put out the novel without cutting it drastically. In case you might be tempted to curse draconian and unreasonable publishers, always worried solely about the bottom line, here is one sample sentence from the novel, chosen at random from a page (14 in the Google books version linked below) likewise chosen at random: “Could one ever have it real to him that in one life time a man could have it all so different for him, that a man all alone in his single lifetime could make it so that he could have it to be truly all so different in him.” Lest I be accused of just lifting a sentence out of context and thus making it seem less readable as a result, here’s the next sentence: “Nay for a man to have it in a single life time all so different for him is more strange than being born and being then a baby and then a child and then a young grown man and then old like a man grows old and then dead and so no more of living, it is more strange because it makes so many lives in this one living.” The novel is just over 900 pages long, and to say the prose is just as repetitive on the 900th page as it is on the 14th would be both accurate and yet not quite sufficient to express the feeling of reading 900 pages of such prose.
Right about now you’re likely wondering how I could possibly know (even if I can’t quite express) that feeling. The answer is that yes, I did in fact read every single page—every single word on every single page, no less—of Stein’s book, for the start of the first chapter of a book that I might or might not ever get around to completing. Doing so was without any question the most difficult, frustrating, crazy-making experience of my scholarly career (and I’m including trying to master cursive handwriting in first grade as part of that career). And yet even if I never get to publish that book or chapter, or even the ten pages or so that I wrote about Stein’s book, I’m incredibly glad that I stuck with it and got to the point where I could produce those pages of my own about it. Not just so I can brag about having done so in a blog, either. Also and most meaningfully because it was worth it—just as is the case with those three aforementioned difficult authors and their texts, Stein’s book, not in spite of the repetitions but in large part through them, offers hugely compelling and important perspectives and ideas on and images of familial and national histories, on what the past means for each of us both as an individual and as an American. I don’t think any other American text comes close to hers in its willingness to represent the slow, gradual, hesitant, difficult, and yes repetitive and yet ever-changing nature of families’ and communities’ multigenerational experiences and transformations—and I don’t know that there are any unifying national experiences more unifying and more national than such transformations.
Am I recommending that you too read all of Stein’s book? I suppose I am, although I hereby abdicate responsibility for any psychiatric expenses that you might incur as a result of such readings; no literary lifeguards will be on duty, swim at your own risk. But what I’m really arguing isn’t limited to Stein, nor to any of those other authors and texts, and is really more about us: the more we engage with challenging texts and ideas, with those that frustrate us and refuse to be simplified and so refuse to fit our simplifying narratives , the greater the possibility that we can make some progress, as individuals and as Americans. That’s a goal worth repeating. More tomorrow, on the song we all sing but don’t really sing like it was meant to be sung.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The Google books version of Making: http://books.google.com/books?id=cRMjLSUJB-8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=gertrude+stein+the+making+of+americans&source=bl&ots=xY1wo2gfPT&sig=ih5vavg7xmsFvAaX8Foq8wOqkLk&hl=en&ei=DIo_TcCQO4-p8Aby_L3SBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDcQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
2) The full text of Tender Buttons (1914), a book of poetry that is, well, slightly less frustrating, in shorter doses, and just as worth it: http://www.bartleby.com/140/
3) OPEN: Any difficult or even crazy-making texts that you found worth the effort (or any that you didn’t and want to warn us to stay away from)?
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
War stems from the worst attributes of human societies and communities, from the most divisive and negative forms of the things that can ideally unite and connect us (faith, nation, history, and many more), and it is thus no surprise that it consistently yields the worst and most horrific kinds of actions. Yet while it is easy for us Americans to recognize the existence of such wartime actions when they are undertaken by brutal dictators and regimes (ie, the Holocaust), and more difficult but still possible for us to admit that our own soldiers and government can take such actions when ill-advised or controversial wars go poorly (ie, My Lai or Abu Ghraib), I think our national narratives of World War II (to cite the most overt and clear example) still illustrate that we long to believe in the possibility of a purely good war, one in which those worst actions could never be taken by our own, entirely right side. Yet while any historical analysis must take into account the specifics of each war, including ways in which the war is indeed more potentially justified and necessary, events like the firebombing of Dresden exemplify the continuing presence of the horrific actions in even a “good war.”
As with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and (especially) Nagasaki, World War II historians and scholars have long debated the relative necessity, military and strategic value and effects, and potential war crime status of the Dresden bombing, which took place between February 13th and 15th of 1945, which featured nearly 4000 tons of bombs dropped on the German city by RAF and USAF planes, and which created a 15-square-mile firestorm that killed an estimate 23-24,000 inhabitants (many of them civilians). I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about the bombing’s details to weigh in on those questions, but I think that the entirety of the debate can elide the inescapable fact that the bombing was horrible and brutal in any case. That is, while it might well have been more militarily effective than (for example) My Lai, the fact remains that tens of thousands of civilians were killed, that a beautiful and culturally rich city was essentially razed, that the destruction wreaked on Dresden stretched far beyond any military meanings it might include; arguments that the Germans were doing the same to London with their own rockets during this period, while accurate, only highlight how much such horrific actions become the norm for every side during every war. While it is understandably (if sadly) necessary during a war for citizens of one nation not to think of an enemy nation’s citizens and cities as just as human and worth protecting as their own, it is I would argue crucial for us to remember that basic concept in the aftermath and memories of any and all wars.
If such broadly communal reflections were to emerge out of the ashes of Dresden, they would not be the first amazing human achievement to stem from its horrors; that honor would have to go to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969). Vonnegut was a prisoner of war held at Dresden, and so witnessed the firebombing and its aftermath firsthand; as he admits in the book’s meta-fictional first chapter, he attempted to write the novel for nearly twenty years before finally completing and publishing it. The resulting masterpiece is literally impossible to categorize or fit into one generic box: it includes science fiction concepts, time travel, and sequences set on an alien planet; features some of the best uses of black humor in any American text; includes a profoundly realistic portrayal of war and trauma and their lingering psychological and emotional effects; features from time to time pencil drawings that complement and deepen the novel’s style and themes; and so on. Yet at its core, I think Vonnegut’s work is most fully engaged with the seemingly contradictory but crucial duality with which I ended the prior paragraph: that war inevitably produces the worst kinds of violence and destruction and horror, as illustrated by the novel’s most repeated phrase, “So it goes,” used whenever death is mentioned in any context; and yet the possibility of a human and communal response not only in the face of those horrors, but because of and through them, as exemplified by Vonnegut’s novel itself and its ability to use storytelling to push back on the horrors and imagine (even if only in moments) something very different and much more ideal.
As the United States moves toward its tenth year in Afghanistan while directing drone strikes at multiple other nations, it can feel overwhelmingly difficult not to give into the logic of “So it goes,” not to see war and its accompanying horrors as unavoidable and constant parts of our world and identity. And perhaps they are—but if so, that only makes it that much more important to highlight and push back on those horrors, to refuse to accept either that they are simply necessary or that they can be excused as long as they happen to the enemy or are undertaken by us. There are few more exemplary contexts for those ideas than Dresden, and fewer still texts that push back more tragically and beautifully than Vonnegut’s. More tomorrow, on the most repetitive novel in American literary history and why I’m glad I read every crazy-making word.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A brief but very rich interview with one of the leading historians of the firebombing: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,607524,00.html
2) Google books version of Slaughterhouse: http://books.google.com/books?id=GKPktrYG7sUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=kurt+vonnegut+slaughterhouse+five&source=bl&ots=ookv4y76o5&sig=nCmxyp9JMRvnai3FUrvNyE5dovY&hl=en&ei=fUo-Tdj8OIKB8gbj2NGfCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: Pretty big and tough stuff here. Any thoughts, connections, disagreements to share?
Monday, January 24, 2011
Many of the posts here in which I’ve focused on inspiring individual Americans have done so in large part because those individuals have been forgotten and elided, if not entirely than certainly mostly, from our collective national memories and narratives. That’s an unfortunate state in which to find some of our most impressive citizens, but it’s also, I would say, a relatively easy one to reverse, at least given sufficient time—not that any one voice (even one as eloquent and influential as this AmericanStudier) could effect such a shift, but if enough voices began to highlight an inspiring individual, I certainly believe that he or she would gradually gain attention and become a part (even if a small one) of those national stories. But the situation is a good bit more difficult for those individuals like my subject for today, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: individuals who are in fact remembered but in negative ways, for less than desirable reasons, and can seem as a result entirely and eternally boxed in by those negative reputations.
Higginson’s negative reputation is as a stiff and far too conservative literary critic, and stems partly from his lifelong antipathy toward Walt Whitman (and here the reputation is most deserved, as some of Higginson’s critiques of Whitman’s poetry are openly and unnecessarily homophobic) but mostly from his role as an informal but very definite mentor and editor to Emily Dickinson. Dickinson wrote to Higginson in 1862 after reading an advice for young authors column he published in the Atlantic Monthly, and began sending him some of her poems shortly thereafter; they maintained a correspondence and friendship for the remaining twenty-three years of her life. Higginson openly admitted that he did not entirely understand Dickinson’s poems or style, and did advise her to revise, more and in more orthodox ways than she was willing, if she wanted to be published (which, some of her specific poems on publication notwithstanding, she did at times pursue). And he did co-edit a volume of her poetry after her death in which important stylistic quirks like her capitalizations and dashes were heavily edited. But any reading of their voluminous correspondence, as well as Higginson’s own interesting 1891 essay on that correspondence (to which I linked in my November 16th post on Sarah Piatt), makes clear just how sensitive and thoughtful of a reader and editor Higginson was, how fully Dickinson valued and benefitted from his responses and perspectives, and how undeserved any overly critical take on their relationship would thus be.
But even if Higginson had been an insensitive or chauvinistic buffoon to Dickinson, his life and experiences and perspectives would still be among the 19th century’s most inspiring and worth remembering. At the age of 20 Higginson took a leave of absence from his studies at the Harvard Divinity School in order to devote himself to the cause of abolitionism; he later completed his degree and became the pastor of a Unitarian church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but proved too radical, particularly in his critiques of Northern apathy toward the issue of slavery (but also in his outspoken support for worker’s and women’s rights, among many other causes), for even that liberal Christian congregation and was forced to resign. During the Civil War Higginson served as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Union regiment to be composed entirely of freed Southern slaves; his memoirs of the experience (linked below) are one of the most significant and thoughtful texts to emerge from the war, and he also worked hard to record and capture for posterity the lyrics and music of his soldiers’ spirituals. In his final decades of life he continued to advocate and work tirelessly for African American rights and equality, but also became a passionate advocate of (among other things) women’s equality (publishing two forward-thinking books on the topic, including the one linked below) and even co-founded the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom.
A full engagement with Higginson’s identity and meaning for our society, in his own era and ours, would certainly not elide his response to Whitman or his (more understandable) inability to quite wrap his head around Dickinson. But I suppose this is one instance where Rick Perlstein and I would entirely agree—before we can complicate our narratives about somebody like Higginson, we do need first to change them, to make sure that a reputation and life this have been unfairly boxed in are given the space to impress and inspire us as they certainly should. More tomorrow, on one of our most violent and destructive wartime excesses and the hugely funny and sad masterpiece it yielded.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869): http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6764/6764-h/6764-h.htm
2) Google books version of Women and Men (1888): http://books.google.com/books?id=1hsHQJ3YI-UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=thomas+wentworth+higginson+women+and+men&source=bl&ots=yDB9ErOAM9&sig=qVWucYT0D1yO8-Tlyzj2au4YiO0&hl=en&ei=T7A8TfmcN8WAlAeGgomOBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: Anybody else whose reputation should be revised for the better?
Sunday, January 23, 2011
An interesting, mostly unintended (or at least unplanned ahead of time) link between my first two Tribute Posts—last week’s on Professor Heimert and yesterday’s on Mr. Heartwell—is the idea of staying in the room, of finding ways even late in a teaching career to remain present for each semester and each class and each group of students. Certainly that’s a central goal of mine, one based on all sorts of positive and negative experiences of my own, in and outside of the classroom: from the ones described in those two posts on the very positive end of the spectrum to, at the other end, the college class where a professor pulled out lecture notes that, judging by the yellowed and edge-curled state of the paper, had been written sometime in the late 1950s and most likely not revised since; and, most consistently and enduringly, the experience of seeing my Dad reading and notating the books he was teaching, each and every time he taught them, no matter how many times he had already read or taught one.
To me, the best reason to do that preparatory work each and every time is likewise the best way to make sure that we stay in the room: pushing and challenging ourselves, refusing to fall too fully into readings or routines, ideas or practices, with which we’re already comfortable. And if such classroom challenges are indeed a crucial part of being a great teacher for the long haul, then this semester is going to be a particularly beneficial one for me, because I’m teaching a senior-level English class (a section of an overarching shell course entitled Special Authors) on one of the most challenging and confounding American writers: Henry James. When I have told three of the people I know who most love and enjoy American literature—all of them very talented teachers of it to boot—about that focus, their responses have ranged from surprised to impressed to, well, nauseated, and in each case the reason is more or less the same (if the opinions behind it vary for sure): James is no picnic. Working in the same period in which Mark Twain was developing a vernacular fictional voice that (according to Ernest Hemingway) would inspire all subsequent American literature, James consistently wrote instead in a dense and demanding and highly literary style that echoed Hawthorne’s but without the sense of humor; and while Twain’s most famous narrator, Huck, makes us an important part of his story from the text’s first word (“You”), James famously believed that an author had total control over his audience and should guide them, from an important distance, at every step of the way.
So why did I choose James as the class’s focus? The challenge is not and can’t be the end in and of itself—I’m not a sadist, nor a masochist. For one thing, I think there’s a reason that James was known as the Master—I’m not sure that any American author has ever been better at employing the elements of fiction (especially narration and characterization, but also in crucial ways setting, tone, structure, and many others) to create ambitious and perfectly unified texts, ones that engage with many of our most huge and complex issues (gender, class, post-Civil War American life, love, family, psychology and identity) without losing sight for a second of fiction’s need to engage an audience’s interest and attention. But for another—and for me, in any college class but especially in a senior-level one, even more important—thing, working with James will help me to tap into whatever literary and/or artistic passions my 21 students bring to the mix: for the first of each week’s two days of discussions, the students will be creating quick online posts to highlight a couple interests and questions of their own, and the goal there is to allow them to think about issues of artist and audience, style and goals, choices and effects, that intersect with their own work, whether as literary critics, as analyzers of films or music, as creative writers in their own right, as future teachers, and so on. I plan to build on those starting points on the second day by adding a bit more of my own perspective, especially on historical and cultural contexts and frames, making my work and ideas a parallel and complement to theirs.
The goal, as I put it in the intro paragraphs of the syllabus, is to create a class full of Masters, a project with which it seems to me James would be in sympathy. Also a very challenging project, of course, one perhaps destined for at best partial success. But at the very least that challenge will make very sure that I stay in the room every day and in every way. And if it goes as well as it could—and I promise to provide some sort of update in this space come May—then maybe it’ll be a class and semester worthy of the link to Heimert and Heartwell with which I began this post. More tomorrow, on (I’m pretty sure) the only military officer who also served as the closest literary confidante to a poetic genius.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) James’s “Daisy Miller” (1878) the long story (or short novella) with which we’re beginning this coming week: http://www.online-literature.com/henry_james/1100/
2) And, in case I made it seem like James couldn’t be just plain fun, the full text of The Turn of the Screw (1898), which is either a chilling Victorian ghost story or a tale of sexual repression and longing or a combination of both: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/209/209-h/209-h.htm
3) OPEN: What classes most challenged you?
Saturday, January 22, 2011
I like to say that I gave some thought to teaching high school English before settling on grad school and college teaching, and that’s not untrue, but the bottom line—and I’ve always known it at some level—is that I couldn’t get through a career teaching at the high school level. In my admittedly individual and limited experiences (in public schools, which are the only ones I can speak to), those English teachers who had made it to retirement age in that profession did so by shutting down in significant ways, by dulling their love of the subject or their desire to connect with their students on a day to day basis or similar core aspects of what we do. I’ll never forget my junior year American lit teacher, for example, who, realizing that we didn’t have time to read Melville’s Billy Budd as planned, told us we would watch the movie instead—and then, when we ran out of time for even that, just spent five minutes telling us the entire plot and ended by saying, “That’ll do.” The really passionate and committed and innovative English teachers, on the other hand, the ones who clearly couldn’t do their job without staying in the room every day and in every way, seemed to burn out very young and leave the profession.
As I saw it then and as I have heard from friends and grad students who teach in the public schools up here, there are plenty of practical and administrative reasons for that trend—requirements from the school system and the state (and now standardized testing and outside agencies), the difficulties and dangers of assigning works that might be controversial or anger parents or fall outside of certain boundaries, the need to do things like grammar and vocabulary in ways that might have nothing to do with one’s own pedagogical ideas and goals, and many others—, but if I had to identify one overarching factor, it’d be the difficulty of getting through to the students themselves. If and when I complain about trying to get my students to read or be interested in what we’re doing, I try to remember how much more difficult it would be with 15 year olds, kids who aren’t paying to be there and didn’t in any sense choose to be and have everything going on that 15 year olds do and think it’s nerdy and horrible to show any interest in a class text or topic and etc. And when thinking about that doesn’t make me feel any more inspired, I remember that getting through to those kids—to any class—is difficult but not impossible, remember a soft-spoken man with a Southern accent and an abiding love for Faulkner and singer-songwriters and the Black Mountain poets, remember maybe the most pitch-perfect, Robin Williams-movie-like name of any teacher I’ve ever had: Mr. Heartwell.
I had Proal Heartwell for two classes—AP English and Advanced Composition—in my senior year of high school, a time when you’d think, when I thought, that my love for reading and writing was already pretty fully developed (I had, after all, signed up for AP English and Advanced Composition). But Mr. Heartwell proved us both wrong, on an almost daily basis, and in more ways than I can possibly detail here. The first thing in the morning journal free writes set to music that each of us got to bring in and share with our classmates; the unit on close reading song lyrics of our choice (as a sneaky way to get us analyzing poetry) that I have shamelessly cribbed for my own Writing I syllabus; the dense and difficult texts (from As I Lay Dying to multiple Shakespeare plays to, yeah, the Black Mountain Poets) that he found ways to get us to open up for ourselves, to feel as if we were making them alive and new; the cassette tape with more than an hour of feedback that he gave each of us for our short stories; the poetry reading he organized for us and emceed at a downtown book store. I don’t think I remember with any real specificity or vividness any one assignment or unit from any other high school class—most of my high school memories are of that time I should have asked her to dance, that humiliating day at lunch, and, y’know, that other 15 year-old kind of stuff—but I remember all of those from Mr. Heartwell’s classes, and many more besides. Would I have majored in History and Literature in college, written a thesis on historical fiction and American culture, gone to grad school for a PhD in English, published my first article on Faulkner, if I didn’t take those classes with Mr. Heartwell? Maybe. But I’m not sure I would have gotten through senior year and high school without him, and I know I wouldn’t be the teacher and reader and writer I am.
I don’t think I ever quite told Mr. Heartwell any of this—no final scene with all of us standing on our desks in this movie, at least in part because luckily no one forced Mr. Heartwell out; he did leave at a later point to found an innovative middle school for girls, inspired I believe by his own daughter—and I hope I can find a way to get this post to him somehow. But I have to believe that he already knows how much he was getting through to us, how much he got through the obstacles and requirements and got right to the core of what makes teaching and literature and reading and writing alive and vibrant, meaningful and valuable. More tomorrow, an academic work in progress post on the brand-new class that I’ve just begun teaching this past week.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The website for Mr. Heartwell’s school for girls, the Village School: http://villageschool.us/
2) Proof positive that Mr. Heartwell continues to think and learn and write about his profession and in so doing inspire fellow teachers as well as his own students: http://www.ncte.org/journals/vm/issues/v10-2/
3) OPEN: Any high school classes or assignments or moments that stand out?
Friday, January 21, 2011
One of the main premises underlying both my motivations in creating this blog and many of the topics with which I’ve dealt here—and, for that matter, much of my scholarly work and teaching more broadly—is that in focusing as we tend to on the overtly and easily inspirational and ideal aspects of our national histories and identities, we Americans elide not only the more difficult and dark sides but also some more genuinely and profoundly inspirational and ideal stories and voices. And I’m not sure any duality can better exemplify that premise than that between Ellis and Angel Islands. Ellis is a great example of an overtly and pretty easily inspirational and ideal site, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way; while certainly there were more troubling aspects of Ellis (such as the medical tests and quarantines) that we have downplayed, there’s no doubt that the place does represent the point of arrival for many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of new Americans, and that it is thus without question the physical counterpart to and manifestation of Emma Lazarus’ poem, the first space in which those huddled masses could perhaps begin to breathe free and could certainly embark on the next stages of their American journeys. My own maternal great-grandparents most likely came to America through Ellis around the turn of the 20th century, so I get the place it holds in our individual and collective narratives for sure.
Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, served as the “Ellis Island of the West” (as it was sometimes known) for a much briefer time, from 1910 to 1940, although it is estimated that at least two hundred thousand and perhaps as many as a million immigrants (most but not all from China and Japan) were processed through it during those decades. Yet the realities of the immigration laws under which Angel existed—first the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the even more restrictive and xenophobic Asian Exclusion Act of 1924—made Angel Island into a much more complicated space than Ellis, one that at best entailed extensive interrogations and challenges to its arrivals and at worst (and much of the time) became a prison, one in which Asian immigrants could expect to live for years before they were offered the opportunity to travel to the mainland (if they were not simply turned away). And just as prisoners often carve their voices (or at least their chronologies) into their cell walls, so too did many of Angel Island’s inhabitants create an amazing body of impromptu communal poetry on its walls—those folk literary texts, which were collected and published as early as the 1930s and are given new voice for the 21st century at the first link below, are an amazing record of heartbreak and hope, of the squalid and painful conditions that greeted arrivals at Angel and yet the continuing faith with which they endured their years there and because of which they continued to fight for the chance to join the nation that lay outside its walls.
Yet the story of Angel Island, like the story of Asian immigration in this time period (and really up until the 1965 immigration act) more generally, entailed more of the heartbreak than the hope for far too high of a percentage of those who experienced it. And it is those darker sides that are at the heart of one of America’s greatest short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1912; most of it, although unfortunately not the conclusion, is available at the second link). Only the final, briefest and most devastating section of Far’s story is set on Angel Island itself (or a parallel holding station), since the story’s two adult characters (a Chinese American husband and wife) have been lucky enough to gain entry to the nation and begin to create a new life here, in San Francisco’s Chinatown; but since it is their infant son who has been detained upon his first arrival to America at the story’s opening (the wife returned to China to care for her dying mother-in-law and gave birth while there), it is quite literally the case that their family and future are likewise detained, held in a state of uncertainty and limbo as the story’s events play out. No paraphrase or summary can do justice to Far’s concluding section, nor to her story’s overall engagement with the ideals and the realities of American life through the lens of this fictional family and very real place and issue; but since that conclusion is apparently not available online, I will say that it is both understated and yet one of the most profoundly tragic moments in American literature, a moment that for any parent—and any empathetic person for that matter—brings home the human cost of the period’s exclusionary laws and of the worst possible meanings of Angel Island.
As I’ve written in this space before, few of our national narratives are in more immediate need of, yes, complication than those related to immigration. And a focus on both Ellis and Angel Islands could provide some of the most significant such complications: that illegal immigration as a concept was created in the late 19th century to limit and exclude immigrants from certain countries; that immigration through Ellis was thus mostly neither legal nor illegal, since that concept did not apply to the vast majority of immigrants arriving there; that the concept of illegal immigration served, and I would argue continues to serve, mostly to turn certain immigrant experiences into perpetual imprisonments, even, as Far’s story highlights, for those who seemingly escape the literal prisons; and yet, as the Angel Island poetry illustrates, that in the midst of those most brutal experiences we can find some of the most inspiring and ideal American identities and voices. More tomorrow, the next Saturday tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A pretty amazing multimedia site featuring the Angel Island poetry: http://www.poeticwaves.net/
2) The first two-thirds of Far’s story are accessible through this Google book, on pages 93-99: http://books.google.com/books?id=nW5_EX7BbDIC&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=sui+sin+far+in+the+land+of+the+free+text&source=bl&ots=4zjA1cS-ej&sig=ieaQBWMfmLfl53d5wN96PcYabvs&hl=en&ei=4fIbTbuoIo-u8AbPlYzFDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CEAQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=in%20the%20land%20of%20the%20free&f=false
3) OPEN: Whattaya got?
Thursday, January 20, 2011
I had a mini-debate the other day—in a Facebook comments thread, of all places; 21st century, what are you gonna do?—with Rick Perlstein, one of the very best historians of modern conservatism; the specific topic isn’t particularly important (to my point here, I mean), but the underlying question was, at least in part, what those of us trying to shift America’s historical narratives (a category into which I think both he and I fall) are really trying to do. I had said that I was interested in “complicating” such narratives, and Perlstein’s reply was that “complicating” is an academic word, and that what we need to do is “change” the narratives. Leaving aside the semantic aspect of that distinction, I think what we were debating could be boiled down to the difference between a political motivation (and Perlstein’s goals are openly political) and a scholarly one; that doesn’t mean that Perlstein is any less rigorous or successful of a historian, nor that my work doesn’t intersect with the political realm, but I do think that “change” suggests a definite and more overtly political endpoint to our historical engagement, while “complicate” suggests the kind of openness to further development and analysis (in multiple possible directions and ways) that is, I hope, at the heart of much of my scholarly and pedagogical work.
Because I’m, y’know, an AmericanStudier, reflecting on all of this got me thinking about Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), and specifically her two kinds of historical and literary activism on behalf of Native American rights. Jackson was 49 in 1879, with a successful and ongoing career as a novelist, poet, and author of travel narratives about (among other things) her experiences in the frontier settlement of Colorado; that year she happened to attend a speech in Boston by Standing Bear (Machu Nazhi), a chief of the Ponca tribe (from the Nebraska area), who was on a speaking tour to protest the removal and mistreatment of his and other tribes. Deeply moved by what she had heard, Jackson became within a few years one of the most passionate and productive advocates for Native American rights in the nation’s history (before or since); that work included dozens of articles and exposés for newspapers and magazines and a more than 50-page report for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the situation faced by Southern California’s so-called “Mission Indians.” But without question Jackson’s two most significant—and yet contrasting and in some ways even opposed—contributions to our national consciousness about the issue were two books published in the final few years before her tragically early death from stomach cancer: the historical and polemical treatise A Century of Dishonor (1881), which is driven by a litany of facts and quotations and sources; and the epic and romantic novel Ramona (1884), which is driven by the tragic love between its beautiful but doomed Native American hero and the equally beautiful titular Native-Mexican-Scottish heroine.
While Century has not entirely faded from our national memories (it’s probably on the short list of nonfiction works about Native American issues that have any ongoing presence there), its legacy can’t possibly compare with Ramona’s, and for that matter neither can many other American novels of any era—not too many novels have spawned an entire tourist industry, which Ramona has in its Southern California setting, including an annual outdoor pageant in the town of Hemet, California. Yet for many scholars and critics, Ramona’s successes are due largely or even solely to the novel’s romantic and sentimental elements, qualities which in the best-case versions of such arguments dilute and in the worst-case versions overwhelm entirely the novel’s more political and reformist elements. In these arguments, that is, even if Ramona’s idealized visions of Native Americans and its tragic depictions of their losses and mistreatments might complicate the audience’s perspective on those issues, they aren’t necessarily likely to change them, much less to lead to actual changes in the nation’s practices or laws; whereas Century sought very overtly and centrally to effect precisely such changes. That debate has a long history, connecting for example to similar arguments about Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and abolitionism; certainly in this particular instance it’s hard to argue that many positive changes for Native Americans came out of Jackson’s novel, or came at all in the late 19th century (although one of the era’s controversial but mostly well-intended changes, the apportionment system for Native land ownership, was in fact influenced by Jackson’s work). Yet one relatively simple answer would be to note that it should in no way be either-or—that Jackson could and did create both kinds of texts, quite possibly reached drastically different but complementary audiences as a result, and so extended the reach of her revisionist perspective on Native rights and identities into multiple political and cultural arenas.
That isn’t intended to be the last word on these broader questions, not least because the whole of this blog is in some important ways devoted to the issue of what public scholarship is and can be, and what it can and should aim to do and contribute to our national narratives. But when it comes to Jackson, I would have to agree with the final sentiment of a quote from her last days, when she wrote to a friend that “My Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done of which I am glad. They will live and bear fruit.” We should honor that latter sentiment, and the honorable work that Jackson accomplished in these final years and in this pair of texts. More tomorrow, on a tragic site in our nation’s history and the literary and folk masterpieces that came from within its walls.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Ramona (which is very long): http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2802/2802-h/2802-h.htm
2) Google books version of Century (which is not quite as long): http://books.google.com/books?id=asRiAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=helen+hunt+jackson+century+of+dishonor&source=bl&ots=72Cw_ddkuW&sig=cBrCPdjYVa--RfQaQX4OtGEVhcw&hl=en&ei=gaE3Td7aIcXflgeirvHoBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDIQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: Any thoughts on these different kinds of activism? Any figures or texts that seem to connect to these debates for you?