Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 2011: Cowboy Update

For those scholars who like to identify and define certain dominant American narratives—a group that, it will surprise no reader of this blog, would include a certain AmericanStudier—the Western frontier presents a particularly challenging topic. On the one hand, no one could dispute that many of our most mythologized, iconic, and heroic national figures are Western in origin; but on the other hand, what do those figures symbolize? Do they represent the carving out of a path for American “civilization” as it moved west (Daniel Boone) or an attempt to escape that path (Natty Bumppo)? Did they take the law into their own hands (outlaws like Billy the Kid) or maintain law and order in a wild society (marshals like Wyatt Earp)? Were they cowboys and railroad men, doing the dangerous but somewhat corporate work of settling the frontier? Or Indians and bandits, existing outside of, and perhaps (as the kids’ game implies) in opposition to, those types?
The answer, of course, is yes, our frontier myths encompass all of those roles and identities and many others as well. After all, of the many ways in which we could argue that the frontier exemplifies America (an argument that AmericanStudiers as diverse as Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Alexis de Tocqueville have all made), to my mind the most convincing is in its thoroughly cross-cultural community, the ways in which every prominent Western event and site and place were constituted out of at least a couple different cultures and identities, peoples and perspectives. Many of those cross-cultural contacts were far from ideal, violent clashes and conflicts between the army and Native American tribes, Irish and Chinese rail workers, California squatters and Mexican landowners, and many other variations. Yet while such violent encounters have understandably been the focal point of many of the recent revisions of frontier history—just as the violence of the Wild West was a focal point for many of the original stories of the region—these cross-cultural and combinatory Western communities could also produce unique and impressive American identities, lives and stories that embody the best possibilities of such a hybrid setting. And at the top of that list would have to be Nat Love (1854-1921).
Much of what we know of Love we have learned from the man himself, courtesy of his engaging and mythologizing autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907). That book’s subtitle is over forty words long and yet still manages only to highlight some of the diverse worlds and identities through which Love moved in the course of his very Western and very American life: from his birth in slavery to dual frontier careers as a cowboy on the cattle ranges and a prize-winning rodeo competitor known as “Deadwood Dick.” The subtitle doesn’t even get to Love’s final iteration as a Pullman conductor, returning to the West where he had made his name and fortune as a buttoned-up representative and spokesman (quite literally, as this section of the narrative reads at times like an advertisement) for the technology and comfort of the new railway lines. These hugely diverse stages and worlds can make the narrative feel scattershot in tone and focus, and Love similarly divided in perspective, but that’s precisely what makes the book and the man so emblematic of the frontier—this is a man who was born a slave and who still experienced frequent racism in his Pullman work, but who also became one of the period’s most celebrated rodeo performers and a frontier legend; a man who worked as a cowboy alongside peers from every culture and community in the west, went to work for one of the Gilded Age’s most successful corporations, and closes his book addressing eastern audiences who have likely never been further west than the Mississippi.
There’s no way to boil that life and identity down to a single type or narrative; his subtitle couldn’t even boil it all down to forty words. Many of the frontier’s cross-cultural experiences were, again, not nearly as successful as Love’s, but that too is central to the point—a narrative of the frontier, like a narrative of America, would need to include both Love and Little Big Horn, and everything and everybody in between and alongside. “Cowboys and Indians,” that is, can and must mean both mythic confrontations and the possibility that the “and” does indeed symbolize connection and community. More tomorrow, on one of the smartest and scariest novels I’ve ever read.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Full text of Life and Adventures:
2)      A great companion website for a great book on one of those very violent cross-cultural contacts, Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (2008):
3)      OPEN: Who or what would you add to our stories of the West?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 2011 [Academic work post 7]: Time Sensitive

I know it doesn’t gibe well with popular (and still somewhat enduring) images like the absent-minded professor, but I think most every aspect of this academic gig feels a bit like a race against time. Certainly that’s true of teaching—that desire to get as much done in the day’s hour fifteen, in the week, in the unit, in the semester and the course, fueled by the knowledge that when the semester and course are over so too might have ended my only chance to work with and hopefully help these particular students, is a fundamental force in my classroom work. But the same can be said for all kinds of committee and service work—trying to make the best use we can of this meeting, trying to get assessment project X or new initiative Y off the ground before the semester or year ends and everybody moves on to their next work. And even scholarship, which can seem to be the most open-ended in terms of time, becomes, when you’re trying to complete it alongside those courses and that service work and, y’know, parenting and life, very much about fitting the most we can into the limited time windows we’ve got.
I’m thinking about this aspect of my profession more than usual these days because of another, and even more strikingly time sensitive, side of my current work. I’m the 2011 President of the New England American Studies Association, a regional chapter of the national ASA; I’ve been on the NEASA Council for four years now and am hoping to be connected to the organization in one way or another for many more years to come, but the presidency is a one-year gig, and so it’s very literally the case that my main objectives and hopes for what I can add to NEASA’s efforts have to come to fruition—or at least, more realistically, have to be off and running in significant ways—before the clock runs out on 2011. Those objectives include a number of different focal points, from a spring colloquium at which NEASA members can share their recently published works or works still in progress to the growth of our website (link below!) into a space where interested scholars and Americans can find vibrant and ongoing conversations and resources for American Studies work. But most fully and, I admit, most ambitiously, my hopes rest with NEASA’s annual conference, which will be held the first weekend of November (11/4 and 11/5) at Plimoth Plantation here in Massachusetts.
I’ve attended the last six NEASA conferences, and they’ve been uniformly interesting and rich, full of impressive scholars (from both in and out of the academy) sharing strong ideas. I definitely don’t want to do anything to break that streak. But at the same time, I do want to make the conference more of an event, something that even folks who aren’t presenting, who aren’t affiliated with NEASA, who aren’t even necessarily American Studies scholars per se, find interesting and choose to attend. It’s a regional organization, so I’m not asking that Californians fly in en masse or anything; but I would love this to be something that somebody from a New Hampshire or Connecticut or Boston-area university just hops in the car to attend, something that a secondary educator throughout the region feels is worth asking for a release day to  take part in, something that a visitor to Plimoth over that weekend just decides to take in for an hour or two, something that, in the most ambitious version of these fantasies (I mean goals), a local reporter deems worthy of a few lines of coverage (the theme, American Mythologies: Creating, Recreating, and Resisting National Narratives, is certainly one in which all Americans have an investment). There’s only so much I or we can do to make all of that happen, of course, but within those limits, and most relevantly (to this post) within the next few months, I’m going to do what I can to put our conference on all those maps.
The trick, of course, is that I don’t want my doing so to take away from using the rest of this semester as effectively as I can in my classes; from moving forward with departmental and Liberal Arts & Sciences assessment; from getting started on book three; from being Daddy. Is there time for all of it? There is—now I’ve just got to try to make it work. I’ll keep you posted! More tomorrow, on the cowboy-conductor who makes cinematic Western heroes seem downright drab in comparison.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The NEASA site:
2)      Plimoth Plantation, where it’ll all go down:
3)      OPEN: Any suggestions? Want to get involved with the conference, or NEASA in general? You know where to find me! (Right here, duh.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 2011 [Tribute Post 5]: It Takes a Village

For various reasons that don’t necessarily need elucidating here, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just how communal any successful individual’s professional trajectory, his or her career path, really is. Since I’m about to make clear that I’m referring to myself, let me stress that by “successful” I simply mean somebody who has found a satisfying and productive and meaningful job, a way to do something that he loves and feels as if he can do for the rest of his life happily and well. I certainly feel that way about—and feel very lucky and blessed to have—my gig, and again have been thinking recently about just how many people and contributions and steps have contributed to my path here. And so, for this tribute post, five such people and one specific, seemingly small but far from insignificant, moment in which each made such an impact for me:
1)      Mr. Hickerson and Bruce: My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Hickerson, runs a very close second to Mr. Heartwell as the most inspiring and impressive teacher of my pre-college years. The whole of that year with him was hugely meaningful for me, but if I had to highlight one moment, it’d be a couple classes when he had us bring in and analyze songs of our choosing. My choice was Bruce’s “The River,” then and now probably my favorite single song of Bruce’s, and the resulting discussion, and especially my attempt to articulate why I read the end of the song (and thus its whole arc and story and meaning) in the way that I did, was a transformative moment for me for sure.
2)      Mrs. Perkins and Tutoring: In my senior year of high school, I was one of five students who were eligible for and chose to take a class in Multivariable Calculus. Because it was such a small cohort, our young and very enthusiastic and cool (in the best sense) teacher, Mrs. Perkins, made the class very much about our individual identities and perspectives, including a creative assignment for which I made a Choose Your Own Adventure math book that I still remember very fondly. But by far the most meaningful feature was a unit in which each of us worked with one student from a more remedial math class to help him or her pass a standardized test that they needed in order to move to their next year’s class; I know I had tutored before in one context or another, but I remember those couple of weeks, and even particular choices of mine (that did work, that didn’t) and exchanges between us, much more fully and specifically. My tutoree passed, and I don’t think I had a prouder or happier moment in high school.
3)      Jay, John, and the Gauntlet: I’ll be the first to admit that I came into college in general, and into the History and Literature program there specifically (a program that usually started with sophomore year but that I had applied to begin as a freshman because I felt so damn ready for it), feeling like I knew what I was doing. Sure, I had things to learn, books to read, ideas to grapple with, but the skills? I was good to go. Well, my year of Hist and Lit Sophomore Tutorial, and specifically the incredibly challenging and rigorous and oh-so-necessary feedback I got from my two tutors, Jay Grossman and John McGreevy--now professors of American literature at Northwestern and history at Notre Dame, respectively—was exactly the corrective I needed. They fostered my ideas and interests and passion but made very clear how far I had to go as a thinker and reader and, especially, writer, and it’s difficult to overstate how much I’ve carried those lessons forward, both in my own work and as teaching models.
4)      Dr. Caserio and the Red Pen: And lest it seem as if the lessons ended there, or in college at all, I take you forward about six years, to a graduate class in Narratology and Fiction that I took in Spring 2002 with Temple’s then-department chair and resident taskmaster, Professor Robert Caserio. Caserio believed in and practiced the Socratic method, meaning that every class was a palm-sweating experience in being pushed and prodded and challenged and strengthened. But even more meaningful, for me, were his incredibly detailed and thoroughly rigorous comments on my papers—I couldn’t believe how much red ink I saw when I got the first paper back, and almost none of those comments comprised simply grammatical or stylistic responses; they were challenges to my ideas and to my prose, to words or sentences that weren’t clear or specific or sufficiently analytical, that needed more and better. They were also, and most importantly, an investment of time and energy and intelligence to which I couldn’t help but respond in kind.
5)      Dr. Crossley and a Chance: In the fall of 2004 I was teaching five sections of first-year writing as an adjunct at two local universities, Boston University (in the Writing Program there) and UMass Boston (in the English Department) while finishing my dissertation and going on the job market for the first time. My wife was working 100-hour weeks as a medical resident. And in mid-October our Boston apartment was broken into and my laptop (which included not-backed-up copies of my first dozen or so job letters and lots of other similarly difficult to replace or replicate materials) was one of the items stolen. All of which is just to say, by early November I was crazy busy and stretched thin and perhaps, to coin a phrase, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And then the UMass Boston English Department Chair, Professor Robert Crossley, asked me if I would be interested in teaching a literature class (a survey entitled Six American Writers) in the coming spring. I’ll probably never know what led him—as busy and stretched himself as any department chair always is—to think of me for it, but I do know that that spring course remains one of my best semesters ever, and that I can trace literally double-digit specific influences and effects of my work in that class on my continuing efforts as a teacher, scholar, and AmericanStudier.
Each clause of that final sentence is really my point here. Who knows why opportunities come our way, and whether it’s ultimately anything other than luck that brings us to people and relationships and influences like these? Certainly we can and must take advantage of them once they’re there, be open to their inspirations and lessons and meanings, and carry them forward as fully and gratefully and successfully as we can. But it also seems to me that we—and I mean we as academics and scholars and teachers, but also we as Americans, we as humans—have to acknowledge just how significant a truth it is that, yes, it takes a village. More tomorrow, my next academic work in progress post!
PS. No links really needed here, but I will respectfully ask if everybody who reads this could perhaps comment on one such person and/or moment of yours? (Anonymous comments are fine, of course!) That’d both drive home my point and, y’know, help continue the creation of this particular village here. Thanks!

Friday, February 25, 2011

February 25, 2011: War and Peace

Few presidents, or national leaders of any kind, have as vexed a relationship to war as did Woodrow Wilson. With World War I raging across Western Europe, Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” and the phrase was in its moment entirely accurate and yet in hindsight cannot help but be reflected in a funhouse mirror by the fact that Wilson would lead the US into that war only a few months after his second inauguration. And yet, having reversed course so dramatically (and for lots of complex and perhaps entirely justifiable reasons), Wilson would end his presidency and political career fighting ceaselessly for the creation of the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization that could make real his pledge that World War I would be “the war to end all wars.” That the League failed, and that another world war would commence not two decades later, provides yet another tragically (and possibly unfairly) distorted reflection of Wilson’s aims and efforts.
Given all of those contradictory or at least conflicting elements of Wilson’s wartime foreign policy, it might become slightly easier to wrap our heads around a particular—and particularly contradictory—member of Wilson’s administration: A. Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936). Palmer was a Quaker who in 1912 turned down a chance to serve as Wilson’s Secretary of War, arguing that to be “a Quaker war secretary” would be to become “a living illustration of a horrible incongruity.” Yet when the US entered the war, Palmer took on, and performed with a diligence that is both impressive and disturbing, two of the most warlike roles within Wilson’s second administration: first from 1917 to 1919 as the Alien Property Custodian, an agency responsible for seizing and reallocating property belong to domestic “enemies”; and then, most famously and controversially, from 1919 to 1921 as Attorney General, a role in which Palmer (under the auspices of the Sedition Act) engaged in an increasingly overt and extraordinary war against “radicals,” conducting the so-called Palmer Raids on numerous political organizations and rounding up thousands of members for arrest and possible deportation (many of whom were not deported only due to the efforts of an under-secretary of labor, Louis Freeland Post, who opposed the raids).
World War I ended with the Armistice in November 1919, but the Palmer Raids continued well beyond that month, exemplifying just how fully Palmer carried over these wartime activities into other domestic efforts as Attorney General. These included extremely hostile responses to labor protests and strikes and a series of doomsday warnings about radical uprisings (to overthrow the federal government) on May Day (May 1st) of 1920 (warnings that would help commence the decade’s hysterical and repressive Red Scare). Palmer would also run for the Democratic nomination for President in that year, and his campaign rhetoric was as extreme as his actions had become: he noted in one speech that “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.” Many historians, including most recently Christopher Capozzola in his excellent Uncle Sam Wants You: World War One and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (2008), have traced the rise of our modern military-industrial, surveillance, Patriot Act-creating state to developments around World War I, and in that view there can be few Americans more responsible for helping originate those trends than Palmer.
I’ve written before here about the kinds of atrocities and brutalities that occur in even the most noble or just of wars, and the same can certainly be said about domestic abuses: Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans without question rival any of Palmer’s abuses in this regard. War, as we have seen far too often over the last decade, can bring out the worst at home as well as abroad. Yet the most significant legacy and lesson of Palmer’s role are slightly different and just as important to remember: how fully those abuses can likewise bleed over into peacetime, turning a Quaker pacifist into one of the most aggressive and divisive figures in our political history in the process. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text and audio of a brief speech of Palmer’s:
2)      A longer piece of Palmer’s, on his anti-communist crusade:
3)      OPEN: Thoughts?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

February 24, 2011: Those Who Wander

Maybe this will change as I get older and realize just how much kids today don’t get it and how much they could use a wise older voice and perspective (not unlike my own, mayhaps) to show them the light, but for now, I have to admit that many of the works of American literature most overtly intended to inspire change, to convince an audience of the benefits of following the author’s revolutionary philosophical ideas, leave me pretty cold. From 19th century/American Renaissance classics like Emerson’s “Nature” (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854) to Beat manifestos like Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)—and each of those four texts is far more complex than I’m giving them credit for here, but all I believe are meant to leave the reader convinced that the author has, if not all of the answers, at least some good starting points toward them—my response has largely been the same: I see the power and brilliance, but I’m ultimately more annoyed than impressed.
If I had to boil the reasons for my annoyance down to one idea, it’d be that all those texts seem to have been written with the answers already in mind, with the author already comfortable in his philosophical position and hoping both to narrate how he got there and convince us to do the same. That might seem to be a necessary condition for the writing of any work, much less a philosophical or persuasive one, yet I think it elides just how much any individual’s perspective and philosophy, like his or her identity and experiences, continue to evolve and (ideally) grow and deepen. For that reason, I find the Emerson who emerges in his journals to be infinitely more interesting and complex and attractive (as a thinker, as a writer, as an inspiration) than the one from whom we hear in the speeches and essays. And likewise, my vote for the most powerful and convincing work of American philosophy would be another journal, and one only published posthumously and so not at all written with immediate publication and persuasion among its goals: the journal of John Woolman (1720-1772), the itinerant Quaker minister who traveled through America for much of the 18th century, developing an impassioned and evolving perspective on religion and faith, community and charity, anti-slavery and Indian rights, pacifism and social activism, and many other complex questions through those journeys and the many people and worlds he encountered on them.
Woolman’s journal is eloquent and beautifully written, a literary masterpiece that has been in print since prior to the Revolution (it was published in 1774, two years after Woolman’s death) and so can lay claim to being one of our most foundational texts. Yet despite that stylistic and formal impressiveness it has an intimate quality, a rawness of perspective, that makes clear just how closely it reflects the open mind and heart of its author. From its first line—“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth of my age, I begin this work”—Woolman stresses both that intimacy and the text’s fluidity, its ability to grow and develop alongside him and his identity (and indeed he would write it throughout his final decade and a half of life). And in the book’s twelfth and final chapter, written over the months before Woolman’s death—and in fact in that chapter’s final paragraphs, likely composed just days before that tragic event, with it perhaps in sight—Woolman writes, “I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.” I don’t know that any single sentence has ever better captured life’s journey than that one—and I do know that few American texts offer a better guide to moving through life than does Woolman’s journal.
When I wrote in an earlier post that “This Land Is Your Land” would be my choice for America’s national anthem, I think it was with this idea very much in the back of my mind (if not yet explicit there). As Guthrie’s speaker “roams and rambles” across America, he finds its true meaning and beauty and greatness, and his place in it at the same time. So too did Woolman in his journeys, and luckily for us, he wrote down that unfolding understanding. It’s well worth bringing on our wanderings as well. More tomorrow, on a Quaker and Progressive leader whose positions on war and America differed quite a bit from Woolman’s, with hugely destructive results.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Full text of Woolman’s Journal:
2)      Brief but thorough and insightful literary bio of Woolman:
3)      OPEN: What texts inspire you?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 23, 2011: Authentic Voices

William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) is probably one of the most controversial, and definitely in many quarters one of the most reviled, novels of the last fifty years. The most obvious and certainly one of the most central reasons for the attacks which the book has received from African American writers and historians and scholars (among other critics) is that Styron focuses the psychology and passion of his fictionalized Nat Turner on a teenage white girl, ignoring potential (if ambiguous and uncertain) evidence for a slave wife of Turner’s and greatly extrapolating this relationship with the white girl from a few minor pieces of evidence in the historical record. Yet having read at length the critiques on Styron, including those captured in a book entitled Ten Black Writers Respond, I have to say that an equally central underlying reason for the impassioned attacks on the book is the simple fact that Styron, a white novelist (and a Southerner to boot), had written a novel in the first-person narrative voice of this complex and prominent African American historical figure.
The issue there is partly one of authenticity, of who does and does not have the ability to speak for a particular community and culture. To me, while there may well be specific reasons to critique Styron’s choices and efforts in this novel, on that broader issue I believe that one of, if not the, central goal of all fiction should be to help readers connect to and engage with identities and experiences and communities and worlds; seen in that light, Styron’s novel is, at least in its goals, hugely ambitious and impressive. But it pales (no pun intended) in comparison with a similar, entirely forgotten novel from nearly a century prior: William Justin Harsha’s Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief, Told by Himself (1881). Harsha, the son of a prominent preacher and pro-Indian activist and himself an impassioned advocate of Native American rights, published this novel anonymously, and since it is narrated (as the subtitle suggests) in the first-person voice of a Native American chief, his project represents an even more striking attempt to speak from and for an identity and culture distinct from the author’s own. The novel is long and far from a masterpiece—it features in a prominent role one of the least compelling love triangles I’ve ever encountered—but in this most foundational stylistic and formal (and thematic and political) choice of Harsha’s, it is to my mind one of American literature’s most unique and amazing efforts.
And yet was it necessary? Just a few years later, Paiute chief and leader Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins would publish her Life Among The Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1886), a work of autoethnography and history and political polemic that, like all of Winnemucca’s life and work, makes clear just how fully Native American authors and activists and leaders could and did speak for themselves in this period (as they had for centuries, but with far greater opportunities to publish and disseminate broadly those voices than at any earlier point). Winnemucca, like the Ponca chief Standing Bear whose lecture tour inspired Helen Hunt Jackson’s conversion to activism and like numerous other Native American leaders (including Inshta Theamba, also known as “Bright Eyes,” who wrote the introduction to Harsha’s novel), spoke and worked tirelessly for her tribe and for Native American rights more generally, and her book illustrates just how eloquent and impressive her voice was in service of those causes. Although her individual and cultural identities became, in both her life and the text, quite complicated as a result of her experiences as a translator and mediator between her tribe and the US army and government—complexities that are the focus of the Winnemucca chapter in my upcoming book—such complications are, if anything, a further argument for the value of hearing and reading her own voice, rather than trying to access it through intermediaries or fictional representations.
Everyone should, indeed, read Winnemucca’s book, and if we had to choose one Native American-focused text from the decade to cement in our national narratives, I’d go with hers without hesitation. But we don’t, and we don’t even necessarily have to decide whether her voice is more authentic than Harsha’s narrator’s, or Jackson’s Ramona’s and Alessandro’s, or Theamba’s. There may be some value in that question, but to me the far greater value is in reading and hearing as many voices as we can, from this period and on these issues and in every other period and frame, to give us the most authentic understanding of the whole complex mosaic of American identity. More tomorrow, on a unique, thoughtful, and profoundly inspirational voice from the margins of one of America’s earliest communities.
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: Which voices strike you as the most authentic? The least so?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011: Coming to be Family

Immigration’s a tricky thing for an AmericanStudier. There are lots of reasons why that’s the case, lots of historical and cultural and legal and linguistic and generational and communal and individual complexities and aspects to the issue—many of which I’ve written about in this space in one or another post—that make it challenging (if also even more crucial) to understand and analyze. But perhaps the most frustrating and significant such reason is that immigration at one and the same time connects to many of our most cherished national ideals (witness the role of the Statue of Liberty in our narratives) and reveals many of our most divisive and ugly national realities (witness the comments section on any article dealing with a topic like the DREAM Act). It’s really at the heart of much of what is best and much of what is worst about America, and has been throughout our history (as I previously noted, Ben Franklin, maybe the most impressive of our founders, expressed repulsive xenophobic beliefs about German Americans in Pennsylvania).
Interestingly enough, two of the films from the last decade that deal most centrally and consistently with themes of immigration reflect precisely these dual and dueling images (while certainly leaving room for the other side in each case): Jim Sheridan’s In America (2003) tells the story of an Irish family who come to America for a fresh start after the death of their youngest child and, despite various struggles and crises, certainly do end up finding their share of the nation’s magic (the scene when the family first arrives in and drives through New York City is literally set to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”); while Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007), despite its overt focus on a stoic middle-aged, widowed college professor, features the story of a couple whom the professor befriends, a Syrian street musician and a West African vendor whose lives and relationship are destroyed when the Syrian, an illegal immigrant, is arrested on a minor charge, held at a detention facility with no opportunity for recourse or response, and ultimately deported (leading to a culminating rant from the professor against an INS agent, a moment that reflects how fully he has been brought back to life by this series of events). The tone of the films’ great final scenes could not be more distinct: In America’s family celebrating the birth of a new child and bidding a final farewell to the lost son; The Visitor’s professor playing his Syrian’s friend’s drum in the subway, a passionate and even angry performance both in honor of the man’s life and art and in protest of what has happened to him.
The distinction makes for a really interesting one-two punch, a reflection of how fully immigration can still represent these hugely disparate national narratives and how powerfully art can capture each end of the spectrum. Yet I would also argue that the films are remarkably similar in another, and perhaps even more ultimately American, way: they both depict, in plot and character elements that I believe must be read as metaphors for our national identity more broadly, immigration’s ability to connect cultures and communities and fill otherwise painful voids in our individual identities and families. In Sheridan’s film, the Irish American mother and her newborn son both survive a health crisis thanks entirely to a magical gift from a neighbor, a West African immigrant and painter who is dying of AIDS and (we’re meant to see) sends part of his essence to the mother and baby as he dies; the moment is not unlike the long tradition of “Magic Negro” characters in films, but at least in this case the character in question both has a deep and complex identity of his own and has formed for much of the film a close relationship with the family’s two young girls, one that has clearly enriched his own identity and life as much as it has and will theirs. And in McCarthy’s, the professor’s reawakening comes not only from his anger at what has happened to his friend, but from a romantic connection with the friend’s mother, a Syrian American widow with whom he bonds over the son’s plight and through whom he begins to imagine a future and family beyond those he has lost; the connection is brief and partial, but deeply felt and familial all the same, as we see when the woman calls the professor by the same Syrian term for a beloved soulmate that her son had used for his lover earlier in the film.
It’s beyond cliché to say that being American means being part of a national family, and the phrase can certainly be used (as in yesterday’s example of the civility narrative) to oversimplify or elide historical divisions and darknesses. But what these cinematic relationships do—as in its own amazing way does the final scene and revelation of John Sayles’ Lone Star, which I’m most definitely not spoiling here—is push beyond the cliché, asking us to consider what it really means that we’re family to one another, that a West African painter, two Irish schoolgirls, a WASPy professor, and a Syrian street musician are all American brothers and sisters; and so that immigration, whatever the ideals or the realities, has really been nothing more or less than a multi-century, ever-expanding, raucous and tiring and exhilarating and life-changing family trip. More tomorrow, on two late 19th century voices that are a lot alike yet entirely distinct.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Nice montage of In America moments:
2)      Great scene from The Visitor:
3)      OPEN: Any artistic images of immigration you’d share?

Monday, February 21, 2011

February 21, 2011: Precedents Day

One of the most nonsensical of our current national narratives (emphasis on the national—the top ten thousand most nonsensical current narratives stem from the general area of one Mr. Beck, but I’m focusing here on narratives that have achieved a pretty broad and cross-community level of support and buy-in) is the idea that we have lost a certain kind of civility in our public or political discourse, and that one of our main goals should be finding and reemphasizing it. Civility may or may not be a worthy goal in and of itself, but it has most definitely never been central to our public and political cultures; even a few minutes’ reading of the materials related to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, the controversies over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the extremely heated and divisive Adams v. Jefferson election of 1800, and many other foundational moments should be more than enough to make clear how uncivil those cultures have often been from the outset.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a historical reailty thing, and the goodness or badness of it would have a lot more to do with our own perspectives and agendas in narrating the histories. And the truth of the matter, as it so often is when it comes to our national narratives—hence this blog, at least in significant measure—is that we have precious little interest in understanding or narrating the historical realities, especially since they so often refuse to fit neatly into our simplifying ideas (such as “We used to be one big happy family who were nice to each other, and now we’re so divided and partisan and mean”). Much has been made of a particular line from President Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service, when he expressed his hope that the tragedy’s deaths could “help usher in more civility in our public discourse”; but I would contend that the far more significant sentiment came later in the same sentence, when he called instead for “a more civil and honest public discourse.” Again, whether or not civility is a worthwhile pursuit, I believe that honesty is most definitely a more worthwhile and valuable one—and, not unrelatedly, that an honest assessment of our history would force us to admit that we have never been particularly civil.
So on this President’s Day, I’d like to set, in my own small way and space, a precedent for future remembrances of our national leaders: honesty rather than celebration, accuracy to history’s complexities rather than “respect for the office of the president” (which is really just another way of saying civility) and all that. This does not, I hope it goes without saying, mean simply revisionist attacks on our presidents; those are just as simplifying, just as dishonest, as any hagiographies could be. Instead, I mean genuinely complex, honest engagement with the whole pictures; not necessarily of every president (to put it uncivilly, who really gives a fuck about Chester Arthur?), but of the ones we particularly want to remember as prominent parts of our histories and identities. Obviously such honest engagement would require more time and effort than a simple President’s Day remark allows, but still, even in the shortest lines we can work in starting points toward it: Thomas Jefferson, articulate defender of democracy and slaveowner who almost certainly conducted a multi-decade affair with a slave, impassioned opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts and imperialist who more than doubled the nation’s lands with the likely unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln, who held a nation together and in the process decimated fundamental civil liberties like habeas corpus, who without question would have been willing to sacrifice any pretence of abolitionism to preserve the union but who once the war had begun was a vocal and steadfast defender of African American rights; Ulysses Grant, who presided over the most corrupt administration of the century but wrote and worked ceaselessly for freedmen’s rights; Teddy Roosevelt, who contributed greatly to negative stereotypes of Native Americans and the Filipino insurgency but helped solidify the National Park System and entrench Progressive reforms; and so on.
None of those get close to capturing the complexities of each man and administration, and the precedent would be most ideal if it just inspired more reading and research, more investigation and analysis of these historical figures and periods and the many issues and questions to which they connect. And if in so doing we got a bit closer to the historical realities of who and what we’ve been, and started to emphasize honesty and accuracy more than either agendas or civility, well, that’d be a day worth celebrating each year. More tomorrow, that long-overdue film post.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Full text of Grant’s eloquent and memorable Memoirs (1886):
2)      Full text of Roosevelt’s influential and troubling The Strenuous Life (1900):
3)      OPEN: What else should we remember?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

February 20, 2011 [Academic Work Post 6]: Grade-ations

[Seeing as I’m in the midst of grading four batches of (or, in more real terms, 95) papers this long weekend, I thought it made sense to paste in a (slightly revised) post from my first, much more personal blog. I wrote this nearly four years ago, but still agree with pretty much all of it.]
I'm profoundly ambivalent about grades. I really mean ambivalent; I know most of the time when people use that word they mean negative without saying it, but I really mean that I am of two very distinct, even opposite minds about giving grades (I've been grading papers all day, in case you couldn't tell). On the one hand, I think they have real value—not just in a practical, what else are we gonna do? kind of way, but in a more philosophical way. After all, I believe strongly in MLK's dream of a world where everyone is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or any equivalent), and if we're going to have colleges/jobs/etc. choosing people based on merit rather than on wealth or family or being part of a legacy or whatever, then we absolutely need things like grades in order to assess how people have done. Not the only kind of assessment, but it seems to me an unavoidable and thus valuable kind, if we really want a meritocracy. (Just so we're clear, I'm in no way opposed to affirmative action—we're a long way away from the meritocracy, and I think affirmative action is a very important way to begin to redress those shortcomings. Charlottesville, Virginia's public schools integrated, after closing for over a year to avoid doing so, in 1965, so we're not talking about ancient history here.)

So that's the one hand. On the other hand, if you have grades, they become the students' focus, period, 100% of the time. Doesn't mean that all students act the same way in terms of them—some students are fully willing to acknowledge that they deserve a lower grade, some students always believe they deserve a higher grade, some expect a lower grade and are pleasantly surprised by a higher grade, etc—but it does mean that all students, and I really believe that's all students (including me when I was a student, up through grad school even) look for that grade on the paper pretty quickly, and will respond differently (read the comments differently, feel differently about the class and themselves and me) based on what's there. I'm not enough of an idealist or an old fogey to say that classes are just about learning in some ideal vacuum, but I do believe that my goal for each student in, say, my American Lit survey is that he or she develop his or her individual voice and ideas about American Literature from 1865 to the present, not that he or she get an A. I don't say things like "Grades shouldn't matter" in front of the students, because I believe they'd stop taking me seriously right at that moment, and with good reason; but I do believe that they're not the primary goal. And in that way grades do put the students and the professor at odds, the vast majority of the time, on a pretty fundamental question.

So is there a third hand? Is there a way to become more monovalent (?) about this question? Probably not, but I will say this: I believe that by grading based more on skills and effort and execution than on content—that is, not grading whether a person's idea about Huck Finn is strong enough, in some absolute sense, but grading how the person developed the idea, how he or she brought in evidence, the amount of work and thought evident in his or her paper throughout, the improvements he or she makes in papers from the start of the semester to the end of it, and so on—makes clear to the students that their work in the class can and will affect their performance, that students who struggle at analyzing literature have as much of a chance of doing well as future English professors, if they do the work and learn what they can and bring it to bear on the papers. And in that way, I'm trying to do my part to bring the two hands together.

Of course, then you might say that I'm destroying the meritocracy concept. But I suppose at the end of the day, for me, meritorious doesn't mean smart in some absolute way; it means hard-working and committed and willing to do the work and respond to comments and improve. I'd always rather reward the latter than the former. And if that means that everybody can make the grade, well, that’d bring us one step closer to Bruce’s mantra that, “in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” More tomorrow, a special President’s Day post.
PS. Three (2011) links to start with:
1)      Some great pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on grading:
2)      Interesting recent “Tenured Radical” post on assignments and grading:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

February 19, 2011 [Tribute Post 4]: Office, Ours

I don’t know if there’s an exact equivalent in any other advanced-degree-requiring profession, although I’m sure there are parallels: the first time a med student gets to deliver a baby on an OB rotation, for example. But then again, in that case there’s an actual doctor (or two) standing close by,  ready to step in if things start to get out of hand, making the moment very explicitly instructional rather than professional. The same seems likely to be the case the first time a law student goes into a courtroom (as a summer intern, say), that he or she is doing so very clearly as a student still, learning from another professional who is likewise present, mimicking the responsibilities without quite taking them on yet. But the first time I stepped into a classroom as a teacher—at least in my graduate program, where we were the sole instructors of record for those first (and all other) classes, not teaching assistants for nor linked to anybody else—I was on my own, just me and those 22 first-semester first-year Writing I students.
I’m not trying to compare the stakes there to those involved in delivering (or even in participating in the delivery of) someone’s baby. But still, those 22 kids looking at me on that September 2001 afternoon were putting a key part of their first semester of college—and thus of much of the rest of their life—in my hands; and I was only about five years older than them, at the start of my second year of graduate school, with exactly zero classroom teaching experience of any kind behind me. The class used a standard syllabus for that first semester, and all of us who were teaching from it were part of a weekly teaching practicum; but neither of those things had much of anything to say about what we were to do on a daily basis, what would happen in that classroom for that hour, how I could possibly earn the respect that those 22 students were absolutely willing to give me—and more exactly my ability to teach them college writing—on faith. I’m sure I would have muddled my way through, and I like to think that I’d have gotten things figured out one way or another no matter what—but honestly, I don’t know how I could have survived those initial experiences if it weren’t for Anderson 1143.
1143 was my office, my first office no less, one floor up from the main English Department offices there at Temple. It didn’t have a window, much less a magic portal of knowledge about teaching. But it did have desks for myself and my friend and fellow first-time teacher Jeff Renye, and together there we aired our confusions and worries, listened to each other’s one-on-one conferences, tried to wrap our heads around discussion leading and assignments and grading, figured it out little by little, week by week, issue by issue, revelation by revelation. Jeff, if and when he reads this, is likely to object, ‘cause he’s his own biggest critic when it comes to teaching (and much else)—and that’s probably part of the reason why he was such a perfect officemate, in this as in every other way, because he was never willing to settle for doing a mediocre job without trying to figure out how to do it better. But the great teachers aren’t just dedicated and committed (although they are those things for sure), they’re also innovative, they think outside of the boxes that they’re given (in a practicum, say), they figure out what’s going to work for themselves and their subjects and their students and they keep on figuring it out every class and every semester and every year. And they’re deeply communal, willing always to talk about all of that with their colleagues, to learn from each other as we struggle to get a bit better all the time. And all of that defines 1143 in that first year just about perfectly.
I never got to watch Jeff teach, although I won’t settle for that past tense because I hope I’ll have the chance at some point. But I know for sure that I’ve talked to him more than anybody else about teaching, not only in that crucial first semester and year but in all the semesters and years since. We made it through that first semester, did right by those students, created our own syllabi and courses as we moved forward, made those classrooms our own. But, speaking for myself anyway, my classes have always also included the best teachers I’ve known and learned from, and so there’ll always be a lot of Anderson 1143 in every classroom of mine. More tomorrow, the next academic work in progress post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      (Temple founder) Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds,” a speech that we taught on that standard syllabus:
2)      Much has changed about it in the ten years since that semester, but here’s the site for Temple’s First Year Writing Program:
3)      OPEN: Any voices who made your own work and career (whether as a teacher or anything else) a bit more possible?

Friday, February 18, 2011

February 18, 2011 [Repeat]: Mi Casas Should Be Everybody’s Casas

[Dad duty calls!]
I get why we focus so many of our exploration-era narratives on the conquistador types. They were daring warrior-explorers who wore crazy hats and searched for lost cities of gold and fountains of youth (especial points of emphasis half a century ago) and killed a ton of Native Americans (especial points of emphasis these days). And certainly my somewhat in-depth engagement with the life and writings of their founding father, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea himself, Columbus, makes clear that they weren’t just one-dimensional cartoon villains by any stretch. But what a difference it would make to our national identity and narratives if the first years of European arrivals became the story first and foremost not of Christopher C. and his fellow explorer-conquistadors, but of the Spanish Priest (later Bishop) who befriended Columbus and even edited his journal: Bartolome de las Casas.
Toward the end of his life, Las Casas published The Destruction of the Indies (1552), an incredibly honest and scathing account of the treatment of Native Americans by Spanish explorers, colonists, politicians, soldiers, and commercial interests. He would spend his final decade and a half expounding on that topic at the Spanish Court, pleading for a more just and mutually beneficial Native policy. But those events were simply the culmination of half a century of impressive efforts and actions—beginning almost immediately after his 1502 initial arrival in Hispaniola, Las Casas worked on behalf of the island’s and region’s natives on a variety of levels: certainly religious, attempting to convert them to Catholicism (not a particularly appealing thought from a 2010 perspective, but far more inclusive than most of the early arrivals’ perspectives); but also social and communal, proposing and working for a variety of experiments and initiatives intended to better integrate the European and Native communities and give proof to his steadfast beliefs that the two cultures could coexist peacefully and successfully.
One of my favorite early arrivals is Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish naval officer who was shipwrecked on coast of Florida in the 1530s, spent nearly a decade wandering across the continent and living with numerous Native tribes and nations, and developed a complex, hybrid new perspective and identity as a result; in my forthcoming second book I identify de Vaca as one of the first Americans because of that hybridity and identity. But whereas de Vaca’s shifts were the result of extraordinary circumstances, Las Casas simply observed what was happening in the Spanish New World, responded to it as a truly moral and good person should but so few of his peers did, and then, more impressively still, wrote and acted on that response, consistently and unceasingly, for the remainder of his life. His efforts did not, of course, fully counter-balance the horrors of genocide and enslavement and destruction, and no one person’s could; but they help us to see that America began not only with those horrors, but also with fundamentally good people seeking a more perfect union of the diverse cultures present here.
If it’s way too easy to be a jingoistic patriot about America, it is, in some ways, also too easy to be purely cynical or pessimistic about what we’ve been and are. Resisting that second perspective partly means acknowledging and engaging with the complex humanity of even a Columbus. But it also, and more optimistically, means remembering and reclaiming the legacy of a Las Casas, as evidence that even the most horrific and destructive moments in our history have contained their voices of hope as well. More tomorrow, tribute post #4!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of Destruction:
2)      A site where both the scholarly work on and activist work inspired by Las Casas continue to unfold:
3)      OPEN: Other impressive folks from depressing eras?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

February 17, 2011: Times Like These

Each of the twelve songs on Tori Amos’s debut album Little Earthquakes (1992) feels in its own way intensely personal and intimate, a profoundly revealing glimpse into Amos’s experiences and identity and psyche; by the time we’ve gotten through the ninth song, “Mother,” it feels as if we have likely exhausted such personal topics, and indeed two of the final three songs, “Tear in Your Hand” and “Little Earthquakes,” are more conventional (if still lyrically complex and intense and musically rich and beautiful) accounts of romantic relationships endangered or ending. But those conventional tracks are sandwiched around, and greatly enhance by contrast the shocking power of, the album’s, the decade’s, perhaps the millenium’s most raw and intimate song: “Me and a Gun,” a track in which Amos sings, with no musical accompaniment, about the night in her twenty-first year when she was raped.
Trying to write about the track’s power feels roughly like trying to paint a nightingale’s song; the first link below is a live version which speaks for itself much better than I ever could. But if I had to pinpoint what makes the song as thoroughly impressive as it is, if I were forced to choose one among the many striking and powerful elements—the a cappella performance, the imaginary conversation with Jesus, the nonsensical and yet entirely logical refrain about Barbados—I think I would go with a three-line sequence from early in the second verse: “And I sang ‘Holy holy’ as he buttoned down his pants / You can laugh it’s kind of funny/ Things you think at times like these.” The casual but precise use of detail, the candor and black humor (although I can’t imagine that anyone not a psychopath ever takes Amos up about the laughing), the effortless inclusion of audience in a moment that could feel (at least to a man who has never been raped) so distant, all elements that are encapsulated here and present throughout. But what gets me every time is that final phrase, “at times like these.” There should be no times like these; there most definitely should not be a sufficient quantity of times like these that the phrase has any meaning; and yet the phrasing makes clear that Amos believes, that she knows and knows that far too many members of her audience will likewise know, that times like these are all too common and even familiar.
Today’s post was supposed to be the one on the two overlooked films about immigration, and that’ll be tomorrow’s. But the stories about the rape of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt (where she was covering the unfolding events there), and even more exactly a very powerful blog post (the second link below) written in response both to that rape and to a few of the most egregious American media takes on it, have been on my mind for the last couple of days, and it didn’t feel right to AmericanStudy about anything else before engaging with this topic. While men of course can (as the blog post rightly and impressively notes) themselves be the victims of rape—prison rape, for example, is a hugely undernarrated national problem, and a corollary to the invisibility of that population and its horrors about which I blogged long ago—it’s nonetheless the case that I feel even less sure analyzing this topic than I did with the experiences of extreme poverty in yesterday’s post. But if I know anything about it, it’s that, to echo and second something said more eloquently in the linked blog post, Logan’s rape should not and cannot be simply attributed to the situation or the culture in Egypt—Amos’s song is far too clear a reminder that times like these can and do happen here too.
It is in fact precisely Amos’s clarity, her candor and intimacy and raw openness about what was done to her and what it felt like and meant and continues to mean years later, that makes her song so significant. Just last year the accuser in the Ben Roethlisberger rape case retracted her accusation rather than press charges, identify herself publicly, and testify in open court. Perhaps Big Ben was innocent, of course; but perhaps the level of silence and even stigma that still accompany the status of rape victim were the deciding factors in her decision. In any case, it’s in times like these that we need Amos’s song more than ever. More tomorrow, that belated film post.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      An amazing live performance of “Me”:
3)      OPEN: If ever there were a topic where I know many readers will have links to add, this has to be it. Bring ‘em, and I’ll add ‘em.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February 16, 2011: Half Lives

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a hard time wrapping my own head around, much less writing about or teaching, the depths of poverty in which so many Americans have lived throughout our existence and continue to live today. That difficulty is at least a bit ironic, since as a professor of (among other things) Ethnic American Literature I spend quite a bit of time teaching and writing about authors and communities whose American identities and experiences are, despite shared and core similarities for which I will argue until my last breath, quite distinct from my own in many ways. And yet while I would never claim to be able to speak for what a Frederick Douglass, a Sarah Winnemucca, a Gloria Anzaldúa experienced or lived, it is for whatever reason with significantly more hesitation still that I write about the identities and worlds of those (of any race or ethnicity, any gender, any community) in the American underclass.
Part of the reason, I think, is that it’s so hard, for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to experience poverty in our own lives and who likewise have not in our professional careers engaged in any specific or experiential way with these harshest economic realities, not to speak in abstractions or generalities, not to lapse into politics or sociology. There’s no one surefire way to counter that tendency, short of going to live for a month at a homeless shelter or the equivalent (and even then, it seems to me that living in poverty as an experiment is as different from living in it as a swimming pool is from the Pacific); but certainly it helps, from an AmericanStudies perspective at least, to turn to those American authors and artists and reformers who have worked to depict with particular sensitivity and accuracy these most desperate and difficult conditions and existences. And near the top of that list by any measure has to be the Danish American reformer, journalist, and photographer Jacob Riis (1849-1914), and most especially his complex but indispensable masterwork How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890).
Riis, who immigrated to the US at the age of 21 and worked for many years as a journeyman laborer, experiencing significant poverty in his own right, before making his way into the newspaper trade, is a worthy nominee for the Hall of American Inspiration for sure. He was a pioneer of the use of flash photography in America, was one of the first muckraking social journalists and a model for many Progressive writers of the next generation, and fought for poor and working Americans and for relevant necessary urban causes and reforms throughout his career and life. But even if he were only to be remembered for Other Half, it should be sufficient to ensure him a place in our national narratives and histories. The book is not without its flaws, most especially in its stereotyping portrayals of ethnic minorities such as the Chinese. But in its incredible depth and density of detail, its painstaking accuracy about places and living conditions (including extensive sketches and layouts produced on site by Riis), its use of photographs to ground that work in images as well as words more than in any prior American text, and, perhaps most impressively, in Riis’s ability to push past whatever generalities and images and narratives existed in his own head about these communities and lives and to engage with and represent the realities of their existences on their own terms (again, not for every community with equal success, but for most of those on wfhich he focuses), the book stands alone, in its own era and in many ways into the century and a quarter that has followed.
A former colleague of mine used to note how much more easily we Americanists engage with issues of race and ethnicity than we do those of class, and to push me to include the latter more fully in my understandings and analyses of our national culture and histories and identities. As we move ever more fully into what must be called—and I’m always wary of historical comparisons and analogies, but I find this one entirely convincing—another Gilded Age, I have to say that he was and is right. I can’t pretend to know much of what it means to be part of the “other half” in 2011, but I can do the best I can to remember and understand and (ideally and crucially) empathize with those lives; and Riis remains a very meaningful voice in that process. More tomorrow, on two underrated 21st century films that, taken together, depict the most ideal and most tragic realities of immigration and America.
PS. Three links to start with:                           
1)      The full text of Other Half:
2)      A great slideshow of Riis’s photographs:
3)      OPEN: Any voices or texts that you’d say can help in that process?