Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29, 2011: This Space for Rent

[AmericanStudier Ben is handing the keys over to New England AmericanStudies President Ben today, to extend the following invitation to all of you, dear readers.]

Dear Colleague,
I’m writing you as the current President of the New England American Studies Association, to invite you and your colleagues, students, friends, and peeps [okay, that part isn't in the usual version] to attend our fall 2011 conference, on “American Mythologies: Creating, Re-creating, and Resisting National Narratives.” The conference will be held at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Friday November 4th and Saturday November 5th. The program features:
1) 24 scholarly panels that cover a rich and diverse range of topics, from war and religion to the body and transnational narratives; the visual arts and literature to pop culture and film.
2) A Saturday keynote luncheon and address by Dr. James Loewen, author of best-selling works on national myths and narratives such as Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.
3) A Friday plenary panel and luncheon focused on images and narratives of Plymouth, Plimoth, and New England, and featuring Wampanoag historian Linda Coombs, Wampanoag elder and author Joan Tavares Avant, University of Southern Maine Professor (of New England Studies) Joseph Conforti, Tufts University Professor (of Heritage and Cultural Tourism and Sites) Cathy Stanton, and UConn Professor (of Anthropology) and Pequot Museum contributor Kevin McBride.
4) A Friday evening reading and performance at Plymouth's Pilgrim Hall by regional indigenous writers and musicians, including Melissa Zobel (reading from her novel Fire Hollow), Larry Spotted Crow Mann (reading from a forthcoming book of short stories), Mikhu Paul Anderson (reading from a forthcoming book of poetry), and Joan Avant (reading from her book People of the First Light).
5) And many other concurrent sessions focusing on and utilizing Plimoth Plantation’s facilities, including a Friday session on teaching New England led by Dr. Loewen; these sessions are intended to be especially meaningful to secondary educators and broader public audiences as well as scholarly attendees.
NEASA is proud to offer a set registration fee of only $20 for all “Attendees” (anyone not presenting at the conference), which includes full access to Plimoth Plantation’s facilities for both days of the conference. The Friday evening event is free; tickets to either or both luncheon events can be purchased for a small additional charge as part of the registration process. To register, just go to For more info on the conference, including lodging, check out the Conference tab at And if you have any questions, please email me at
Thanks, and we hope to see you at Plimoth Plantation in November,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011: On Not Wincing

As I’ve mentioned before, my accidentally-deleted (and unfortunately not backed-up) first post served both as an introduction to this blog’s origins and goals and as a brief discussion of my first exemplary American, and one of my couple all-time favorite people (historical, literary, national, human, you name it), W.E.B. Du Bois. The truth is that I could write dozens of posts on Du Bois, and I do have at least a couple of others planned; besides being a Renaissance American to rival any of the others I’ve written about here, and someone who wrote with equal impressiveness and eloquence and rigor about race, nation, history, creative/artistic/literary topics, fatherhood, the soul, and American and human ideals and what we need to do to achieve them—ie, add in Bruce and baseball and you’ve got a pretty good summary of Ben 101—he’s just a genuinely unique figure, someone who can’t really be compared to anybody else and without whom no account of American identity (or history, literature, scholarship) would be complete.
But today I’m thinking about a very specific moment from the concluding paragraph of one chapter of one work of Du Bois’s, his sociological and autoethnographic masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903). For most of that book’s sixth chapter, “Of the Training of Black Men,” Du Bois has written about that topic and community from an outsider’s or at least extremely analytical perspective, but in the concluding paragraph he makes plain his personal stakes in these questions; the whole paragraph is amazing (and available at the link below), but I’ll limit myself to quoting the first three sentences: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” Du Bois’s theory of the “talented tenth” of the African American community, which connects closely to his ideas in this chapter, has sometimes been described as an elitist one; but while of course not every person (of any race) wants to sit with Shakespeare or summon Aristotle, shouldn’t every person have the opportunity to do so?
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of American history can and should recognize the social and communal needs for affirmative action programs; in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, it was only just over forty years ago that the entire school system was closed for a year rather than adhere to the federal mandate to integrate racially (fifteen years after Brown had established that mandate!). To argue, as I have heard many folks do, that affirmative action programs are attempts to redress distant historical inequities like slavery and thus are not needed or appropriate in our contemporary society is thus to display either blatant ignorance or willful bigotry. Yet many critiques of affirmative action, such as those Donald Trump and his ilk have begun advancing in their attacks on President Obama’s educational background, are rooted in an even deeper and more profoundly discriminatory attitude. For these commentators, the notion that an Obama or a Du Bois deserves to attend our best educational institutions, that these men are among the most intelligent and talented Americans of any community, that in fact they are able to sit (and write) with Shakespeare when the commentator him or herself could never begin to do so, produces precisely a wince, and then a hateful response.
My point, quite simply, is this: affirmative action has been and remains a deeply necessary educational and social program, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with someone like Barack Obama. Obama, like Du Bois (and many of my other Hall of Famers) before him, embodies an ideal for which all Americans can strive, even if we recognize that we will likely never reach their level of inspirational impressiveness. When the vast majority of Americans can see and say that of men like them without the slightest wince, then and only then can we profess to a national belief that all men are created equal. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      “Of the Training of Black Men” (the whole of Souls is available here too):
2)      A powerful response to the Trump attacks, from a Harvard classmate of mine and one of our best young political and social activists:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27, 2011: Guest Post of Sorts

Couple significant things I still need to do before the hay can be hit, but in any case I couldn’t possibly say any of these important things about today’s Birther-related developments any better than James Fallows does here:
Note especially his righteous and right-the-fuck-on indignation about Trump’s immediate turn to questioning how Obama got into Columbia and then Harvard Law. I’ve seen a number of other voices/commentators from the right calling Obama an affirmative action baby in recent weeks, so this is quite possibly the next iteration of Birtherism (although I, like Fallows, doubt very much that this current iteration is going to change much right now or in the foreseeable future).
I spend hours a day trying to help students develop their skills as readers, critical thinkers, responders to texts and the world around them. And then huge swaths of adult Americans buy into garbage like this. I’m not sure if the first sentence should help me feel slightly better about the second sentence, or make me feel that it’s all in vain. But I’m going to go with option A, ‘cause that second way lies nothing but madness.
More tomorrow,
PS. Two more links to start with:
1)      For evidence of the unchangeable nature of Birtherism, check out the comments on the Smoking Gun story quoted in this post:
2)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26, 2011: Do No Harm

While many if not most of the facts of what has happened for the last decade at Guantanamo Bay (to say nothing of the even more opaque Black Sites around the world) will likely remain forever unknown or at best uncertain, more and more information about that profound stain on our recent national identity is nonetheless beginning to come out. Today we (or at least I) learn of an extensive medical study, conducted by doctors with particular perspectives on issues of human rights and torture to be sure, but still conducted and written-up with all the experimental and analytical rigor and precision one would expect from such a report, that details at great and extremely wrenching length the contributions of a great many physicians to the torture regime’s efforts at Gitmo. I understand the dual allegiances held by any military physician, but it is impossible to read this report and not recognize just how fully, in serving their military masters, these doctors violated every line of their medical oath and ethics, most especially the pledge “to abstain from doing harm.”
It’s very hard for me to read the report, for all sorts of reasons including my own marriage to a doctor and my investment (through her but also for example through the Williams stories about which I re-blogged yesterday) in the most positive and quite literally humane and humanist sides of the profession. But I suppose it’s especially hard because I know, from various sources not only journalistic but also personal (a connection whom I will not throw under the bus here spent time working at Gitmo in a role I try not to think about, and reported with no sense of outrage that one of the prisoners he encountered there was a young boy), that many of the hundreds of prisoners held for over a decade in this facility are at best collateral damage from the war in Afghanistan, and at worst even more grotesquely wronged than that (for years it was standing military policy in Afghanistan to pay locals a reward for turning in “terrorists,” and I can only imagine how many of those turned in were as a result simply someone’s enemies or adversaries or even just targets of opportunity; at one point at least over 80% of the prisoners in Gitmo had been captured not by US forces but by proxies in this way). One of the prisoners about whom I’ve read a good deal (through Glenn Greenwald of is a teenage boy, and another a middle-aged father to a large family; in cases like those I can’t help but read a report like this and imagine my own children or myself, taken thousands of miles away from family and loved ones and brutalized for more than a decade with no possibility to prove or even genuinely argue for my innocence or standing in any way.
Despite the powerfully specific and un-generalizable realities of that place and situation, however, I can’t help but also connect them to a broader AmericanStudies concern of mine, and one at the heart of my next book project. We have a national tendency to seek to whitewash over our darkest histories, partly for cowardly or jingoistic reasons (“We’re the greatest country in the world and shouldn’t go around apologizing for ourselves!”), but also certainly for more understandable and even logical ones (a desire to build community through shared forgiveness and moving past our differences and divisions, for example). Yet I firmly believe that this tendency has the potential to do great harm, not only in allowing us to forget and so perhaps repeat our darkest errors, but also in keeping us from genuinely striving to be the best version of ourselves; that version, as I wrote in the patriotism post, depends precisely on engaging with all of the times and ways in which we have come up short of that best version, and then finding a path through and beyond that engagement to something more real and strong. While that’s far from easy, it’s most certainly possible; I would note for example the amazing Stasi Museum in Berlin, a place where Germans and visitors alike can engage with and seek to understand one of the darkest eras in that nation’s history.
Could we as Americans do the same—building an Internment museum, an Indian Wars museum, a Slavery museum, a Torture Museum? I don’t know that we could, but I know that in all of those historical cases we already have, in much of our literature and art and scholarship, complex and dark and powerful engagements with those histories, and with who and what we are through and, perhaps, beyond them. If I can add my voice to that mix in a way that gives us a slightly better chance of doing real good, now and in the future, I’ll have lived up to my own oaths for sure. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      The Stasi museum:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 25, 2011: The Doctor is In (Print) [Repeat]

[This AmericanStudier has a very nasty cough at the moment, so it’s a Ben Franklinesque (early to bed) kind of night. Feels like this repeat is appropriate.]                                         
Since the advent of writing as a viable profession, which in America at least began with authors like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper in the early 19th century, most of our nation’s most prominent and successful writers have explicitly focused their careers and efforts on that role. Many certainly have, like Robert Penn Warren, pursued parallel careers as scholars or teachers or public intellectuals of one kind or another, but those careers of course align closely with their literary efforts. Yet interestingly, if coincidentally, two of the most significant poets of the modernist era in America, Williams Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, worked throughout their long literary careers at day jobs that were drastically different from that of professional poet: Williams was a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine in and around Rutherford, New Jersey; Stevens a lawyer for and then the long-time vice president of The Hartford (the insurance company) in Connecticut.
Both men’s distinctive and impressive poetic voices, styles, and overarching interests and themes could definitely and productively be analyzed in conjunction with those careers and identities. But whereas Stevens kept his poetic and professional lives at least overtly separate, Williams brought elements and themes of his medical career much more directly and significantly into his writing. For example: you don’t need to know about Williams’ profession in order to appreciate “Spring and All,” one of Williams’ most intricate and impressive poems (available at the link below); but if you do, the poem’s grounding (literal and figurative) of its painfully hesitant and yet profoundly optimistic images of spring, birth, and identity in the landscape “by the road to the contagious hospital” (its first line) takes on multiple new layers of meaning. After all, a pediatrician doing general practice work in the first half of the 20th century—and doing so largely among the working and lower classes, as Williams did—dealt on a daily basis with tuberculosis, with polio, with any number of contagious illnesses that ravaged the nation’s impoverished and its children with particular strength; again, the poem does not exist simply in that context by any means, but those historical and cultural frames were unquestionably a part of Williams’ professional work, and only add to our understanding of this complex literary work.
More directly connected to Williams’ medical career and more naturalistic in style as a result, but still complex and impressive as works of literature, are his many short stories that feature doctor protagonists (sometimes first-person and explicitly autobiographical, sometimes more fictional characters). Those stories were published over many decades, but scholar Robert Coles collected them in a volume entitled The Doctor Stories (1984), which is where I first encountered them. Compared to the imagist style of much of Williams’ poetry, these stories tend to be, again, very naturalistic, grounded in extremely realistic settings and voices, both of the narrators/protagonists and of the people with whom they engage. Yet what they share with the poems, among other impressive qualities, is an eye for the world that is both critical and yet optimistic, willing to see the blemishes and yet deeply humane in its search for the best in each situation, each setting , each family, each character. Perhaps most emblematic of this dual perspective is “The Girl with the Pimply Face” (1961; most of it at the link below), and especially the first-person narrator’s gradual connection to the hardened and scarred (literally and figuratively) older daughter of the family of immigrants who call him to take care of their newborn baby; the narrator never quite bridges the gaps between his own identity and experiences and hers, as the similarly understated conversation with which the story opens and closes illustrate, and yet at the same time he finds a way to treat her acne and, perhaps, ease her transition into maturity in this new country and home.
The work that Williams did as a doctor doesn’t need any literary treatments to validate its value and significance, of course. And, again, much of his literary work exists and impresses well outside of that specific biographical and historical context. But there’s something especially inspirational—that word again—about the ways in which the two worlds intersected, not only in a life where he managed to sustain both so admirably, but also in his writing. At the very least, it makes Williams a unique and compelling American author, and one whose voice and life have a great deal to offer us. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: Any interesting intersections of writing and other work you’d highlight?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

April 23-24, 2011: Reasons to Believe

If there’s one way in which I have occasionally been made to feel like an American minority, left out of many of our national narratives—don’t worry, I’m not going to go into one of those routines about how tough it’s getting for a white male these days; I have long since instructed friends and family that if I ever come within a million miles of that utterly nonsensical perspective, they should have me euthanized immediately—it’s as an atheist. In my Intro to American Studies class we watched a portion of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech last week, and as part of that speech’s intro he approvingly quotes an anonymous entertainer who had said that he would rather his two young girls die as children, believing in God, then grow old and die non-believers in the USSR. Despite the Cold War-specific context, Reagan absolutely and unequivocally endorses the broader themes of the anecdote, making clear, at least to this atheist, that the man who was president for eight of my first eleven years of life feels I would have been better off dying as a child then living a full life with my particular spiritual point of view. (And yes, the speech was delivered to an evangelical organization, but the president is still the American president, regardless of where or to whom he’s speaking, so I still take that sentiment pretty personally.)
That was more than twenty-five years ago, of course, and I suppose there have been signs that this particular limit of our national definitions is broadening slightly. Certainly I was deeply gratified when Barack Obama, in his 2009 Inaugural address, argued (and the Reagan speech proves just how much it is an argument, not a given) that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”; moreover, while that line and various other meaningless moments and details have contributed to the deeply sleazy line of right-wing attacks on Obama as a closet atheist (and/or Muslim) who only professes a Christian faith, for the most part Obama’s inclusion of non-believers in the national community went unremarked upon. Yet no one can listen to the president end every speech with “God Bless America,” or listen to both my son’s preschool class and my university’s honors convocation still including “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, or witness the number of ballparks at which “God Bless America” has permanently replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, among many other daily and constant reminders, and argue that we do not still define ourselves as a religious people in ways that implicitly but unquestionably render us atheist Americans slightly less fully part of the national community. Again, I hasten to add that this kind of exclusion is far, far less weighty than the others on which I have focused in recent posts—but nonetheless, until we can imagine an avowed atheist successfully winning the presidency, exclusion it very much is.
With it being Easter Sunday (and Passover) and all, this post might seem unnecessarily provocative or argumentative. But I actually am thinking about this issue for reasons that are, I hope, more about community and connection than division or exclusion: it’s a beautiful spring day here in Massachusetts, and we did a little outdoor Easter Egg hunt with the boys. My younger son has his issues with sharing, but today, for whatever reason, he was on his very best behavior—every time he saw two eggs he would grab one and then direct his older (and significantly less aggressive) brother to the other one. It was a beautiful thing, done by two beautiful boys (I’m biased, but you can judge for yourself on that picture up there), on a beautiful day, and it made me feel a profound faith—not in God, but in the soul, in the world, in the best of who we people and Americans can be and of what links us into one national and human family. And I know it runs counter to some of the pessimisms about our national community I’ve articulated in this space (and elsewhere) lately, but I have to feel that many other Americans, of every faith and every political perspective and every community, were doing and feeling the same today.
Happy Easter, Passover, Egg Hunts, April 24th, and whatever else today might mean to you! More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: What do you think (or believe, although I do like the bumper sticker that asks us not to believe everything we think)?

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22, 2011: Where in the World?

In the analysis of Barack Obama’s first book (Dreams from My Father), his parents’ cross-cultural transformations, and his own status as the deeply representative and symbolic 21st-century American descendent of those transformations with which I conclude my book, I write of the Birther movement (whose perspectives on Obama’s un-Americanness I try to contrast very explicitly with that sense of mine that his family history and identity makes him profoundly American as I hope to define the term) that it constitutes a “small but very vocal minority” of Americans. Yet in the last couple weeks I’ve been forced to reconsider that phrase very fully, as a significant and growing body of evidence—from Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in presidential polls based solely, it seems, on his newfound Birtherism; to the Drudge-report hyped upcoming release of Jerome Corsi (he of the Swift Boat nonsense)’s new book entitled Where is the Birth Certificate?; to a poll I saw yesterday in which 47% of Republicans expressed the belief that Obama was born outside of the United States, with 22% more saying that they are unsure where he was born—is making it hard to see Birtherism as anything other than a widely shared and deeply entrenched national narrative.
Part of the problem here, to be sure, has been the mainstream media’s tolerance of Birther views as if they represent simply another political point of view, and one that deserves an equal hearing among all others. Reporter Amy Nelson, in an article published today on the Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott, who made headlines in the off-season with a rambling news conference in which he very fully endorsed Birtherism, writes of the response to Scott’s comments that “some bloggers” argued back that “the evidence Obama was born in Hawaii is overwhelming.” Unless Ms. Nelson is counting Hawaii’s Republican governor and the US Department of State (which treats the short-form birth certificate, the only one Hawaii will release or even allow to be photocopied, as entirely legal and grants passports based on it) and the two newspapers that published birth announcements in 1961 and etc. as “some bloggers,” she’s blatantly misrepresenting what that evidence entails and who has argued for its overwhelming and entirely incontrovertible nature. One of the potential downsides to a nuanced scholarly perspective, as I wrote in that recent post, is the fact that an emphasis on multiple narratives and perspectives can be bastardized in precisely this way; some American facts and events, past and present, are indeed outside of the realm of multiple interpretations, making the presence of competing ones a nonsensical and very revealing farce.
Yet as frustrating as this continued and growing Birtherism is, I would argue that the real conversation here needs to happen at a deeper level. I also discuss in that concluding chapter an October 2008 Time cover story about Obama entitled “Is he American enough?,” and while I refuse to grant that Birtherism itself stems from anything other than the rankest ignorance and bigotry, I can certainly recognize that aspects of Obama’s actual biography (the Kenyan immigrant father whom he knew for only a couple of years, the years in Indonesia with him Mom and step-father, the Kenyan Muslim grandfather whose first-name became Obama’s middle name, and so on) seem to challenge many of our most implicit but (as I wrote about the melting pot last week) most widely held narratives about what “American” is and is not, includes and excludes. While I try in the book, and will continue to try throughout my career, to argue for the opposite—and not only by defining someone like Obama as profoundly American, but by arguing that even the most “heartland non-passport white Americans” (as Andrew Sullivan calls them in a recent post on Birtherism) share this heritage of cross-cultural transformation—I know that changing such narratives and definitions is far from simple, particularly for older generations whose versions of those narratives have been held and set for many decades (and who, I believe or perhaps I hope, constitute the core of Birthers).
Yet such change must come—not because of what it would mean for our contemporary politics or elections or etc. if it doesn’t, but because I do not believe that 21st-century America can truly survive, much less prosper, if we fall back on traditional and very exclusive definitions of who and what we are. On this Earth Day, it’s time to recognize that of all nations, America has always been the one most constituted out of the whole world, out of the combinations and transformations of peoples and cultures and nations and communities from Kenya to Kansas, Indonesia to Illinois. That’s not just Obama’s story, it’s all of ours—and the most disheartening effect of Birtherism will be if it allows so many Americans to turn their backs on this newest and most profound piece of evidence for that shared national heritage and identity. More tomorrow,
PS. No links necessary. But your thoughts, as always, very welcome and appreciated.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 21, 2011: Picturing War

My colleague and friend Irene—she of the great guest post on Clara Barton—has requested, very appropriately to be sure, a tribute post on Tim Hetherington, the Afghan expert and photojournalist and war correspondent and human rights activist (and Academy Award-nominated co-filmmaker, with Sebastian Junger, for the documentary Restrepo) who was killed while on the job in Libya on Wednesday. Irene’s request is appropriate not only because Hetherington’s identity (as a British-American citizen who has been intimately tied to our world conflicts for the last decade and more) is profoundly AmericanStudies, but because I have of course thought on multiple occasions in this space about images and narratives, causes and casualties, and the identities impacted by, war, and those were, from what I have learned in a short time, central questions of Hetherington’s work on every level.
As “from what I have learned in a short time” probably intimates, though, I feel pretty unqualified to write about Hetherington in any specific way. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his name before I saw the news of his death, or at least that I didn’t recognize it; and while I did know of Restrepo, and likewise have heard of War, the book that Junger wrote based on his and Hetherington’s experiences in Afghanistan, I haven’t seen the film nor read the book, and so cannot write with any authority about either of them. There is, I have realized in thinking about this today, an AmericanStudies lesson in this for me—at times, despite my best intentions, I believe I do separate very contemporary issues (about which I often have stronger political takes) from more historical ones (about which I have, I hope, stronger analytical and scholarly takes), and thus don’t read and learn quite as much about the contemporary issues (at least outside of political blogs and conversations). There’s only so much time in the day/life, of course, but given how much I have read and learned about America’s earlier wars and their narratives and images and meanings, I should certainly try to do more of the same for our current military efforts.
One area of the Civil War that I have thought quite a bit about, interestingly enough, is the very early version of photojournalism that accompanied it. Mostly that means Matthew Brady (1822-1896), the pioneering photographer who sought in various ways, using the certainly limited technologies of the era, to document in images the Civil War as it happened. On one level, Brady did exactly that, in ways that permanently altered America’s views of war—his images of battlefield corpses from Antietam (the war’s single bloodiest day of battle) were the first such photos ever produced, and brought a battle like that home to America very viscerally. Yet on another level, Brady already introduced many of the questions that have plagued, or at least troubled, photojournalism and war ever since—he apparently staged at least some of those photos to make them more compelling, and while that doesn’t necessarily destroy their veracity (he was moving around real corpses, not constructing false ones or the like), it certainly leads to questions not only of the role and goals of photojournalists, but of what kind of audience effects they produce and what that means about a society’s relationship to and understanding of (in these cases) war.
Certainly I think we’re much better off having a Brady and a Hetherington, having photos and documentaries, having ways to picture wars and their realities and effects much more fully than we otherwise would. But as with any texts and narratives, we’d be best off also analyzing those artists and images, considering what they are and what they do, and what they tell us about not only their subjects and lenses, but ourselves. More tomorrow!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A beautiful eulogy by Hetherington’s friend and colleague Peter Bergen:
2)      Matthew Brady collection at the National Archives:
3)      OPEN: What do you think? (And “you” doesn’t just mean Irene, although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping she’d add her voice here.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

April 20, 2011: A Good Day at a Good Gig

Grading calls, but before I get to it, here are five consecutive events in the course of my day today that remind me of just good this gig is:
1)      11am: A grad student in the department comes by to talk to me about the Master’s thesis that I’ll hopefully be supervising with him in the fall. He’s working on images of masculinity in Hemingway, and has some great starting points, takes that really move beyond some of the over-simplifying perspectives on Hemingway (as uber-macho, as misogynistic, etc) and get into the complexities of his constructions of male characters.
2)      11:30am: One of my two great undergraduate independent study students comes by—we’ve been talking about different uses of perspective and narration in Margaret Atwood and some other 21st century novelists, and today discuss both Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). This student is very smart and also a very talented filmmaker, so she brings a very different lens to discussions of perspective and characterization that really helps me see things anew as well.
3)      12:30pm: I go to teach Ethnic American Literature, where we’re moving entirely into the students’ work toward their final project, a multigenerational family timeline and analytical history paper. I’m really starting to glimpse the incredibly breadth and depth and variety of stories and themes and ideas that the students are finding and drawing out of their family identities and their own, and can see how fully they both intersect with and amplify those that we’ve discussed in our class texts.
4)      1:45pm: In between classes I pick up the senior portfolio that one of my advisees has submitted for departmental approval (it’s a requirement for our majors in order to graduate). In it she has collected and provided new framing documents for ten of her best papers, and two of them are ones that came out of classes in which I was fortunate enough to work with her; the one from my Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy class in particular reminds me both of her extremely impressive work there and of that whole, rejuvenating first time teaching that class (having just created it the year before).
5)      2pm: I go to teach American Literature II, where we’re starting our four days of discussions of our last long reading, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003). Despite this being at least the tenth time I’ve read Lahiri’s novel, including two in-depth examinations for articles, I’m still struck anew by her ability to find the most moving and significant meanings in the smallest and most everyday of details and experiences and perspectives and encounters, and by the half-dozen or so phrases per chapter that take my breath away. I can’t wait to get into the next three days of discussions of the novel.
A good day, one of many at this gig. More tomorrow, a much sadder tribute post by request.
PS. No links, but any parts of your own days (or weeks, or months, or years) you wanna share?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19, 2011: Fools Rush In?

I find myself lately, in thinking about my goals for a wide variety of my pursuits—from this blog to my future book projects, from certain aspects of my classroom work to other public commitments like those with NEASA—somewhat torn between a couple of distinct emphases, both answers to King Theoden’s question (not to quote works of epic fantasy for two straight posts or anything), “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Which is to say, in a moment when 62% of Republicans in a recent poll preferred a presidential candidate who does not discount the Birther garbage, when a significant number of our national conversations and narratives seem to have entirely unhinged from any discernible or even debatable reality, what is the role of a public scholar?
At times I find myself agreeing with the constant refrain of one of my favorite bloggers, Digby, who believes that far too often writers and thinkers on the left attempt to take such a high road that they cede the most traveled paths to those voices on the right who are willing to shout their arguments as loudly and as passionately (and often, yes, as falsely) as possible. In a recent post she linked to an 1820 essay by William Hazlitt, entitled “On the Spirit of Partisanship” (and linked below), which illustrates just how much the two sides have long (and perhaps always) been unfairly matched in this sense: “Their object is to destroy you,” Hazlitt writes to his fellow liberals about their conservative opponents, “your object is to spare them.” Yet as tempting, and at times certainly as necessary, as it can be to fight fire with fire, at the end of the day I still believe that the most central goal of any liberal writer—and doubly so of any public scholar—should be to push back against oversimplifying narratives, to argue for more complex and dense and genuine understandings of American culture and history and identity and even politics. It’s a long arc for sure, but if enough such voices make themselves part of the conversation, it can still bend to justice.
It’s important to add, though, that providing such a measured and complex perspective is not mutually exclusive to fighting for an era’s most significant causes, a fact that is exemplified by today’s nominee for the American Hall of Inspiration, Albion W. Tourgée (1838-1905). Tourgée managed to be, for many decades, both one of America’s most thoughtful public scholars and commentators and a passionate advocate for the issue (racial equality) about which he felt most strongly: a Civil War veteran who was struggling with his wounds in the climate of his native Ohio, he moved with his wife to North Carolina and became a Radical Republican supporter of Reconstruction and freedmen’s rights there; he wrote a pair of profoundly complex and self-reflective and at times ironic and cynical novels about that experience, A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools (1879) and Bricks Without Straw (1880), and continued to publish works of fiction for the rest of his career; but even after moving back north in 1881 he published a syndicated newspaper column (“A Bystander’s Notes) in which he argued passionately for racial equality on a variety of fronts (and against racial violence and discrimination on at least as many). His opposition in that space to Louisiana’s segregated railways led to his selection to argue Homer Plessy’s 1896 case before the Supreme Court; in those arguments Tourgée advanced his belief that justice should be “color-blind,” a phrase which Justice John Harlan borrowed for his passionate dissenting opinion from the Court’s pro-segregation (“separate but equal”) decision.
Tourgée was always, I believe, able to view himself and his writing with the kind of distance that keeps one from becoming a caricature, a windbag so fond of one’s own voice and arguments that no one not already convinced will even listen. Yet he most certainly did not fear to tread into some of his era’s most divisive and difficult questions, and in fact advanced the same kind of measured and reasoned and profoundly impressive ideas there that his Reconstruction novels force an audience to confront. Inspiring on every level for sure. More tomorrow!
PS. Four links to start with:
2)      Full text of Fool’s Errand:
3)      Full text of Plessy:
4)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18, 2011: The Hard Way

I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about this moment before, but it bears repeating for two reasons I’ll elucidate below: one of my favorite literary exchanges of all time, and the one with which I plan to begin the Introduction to my yet-to-be-written third book (this summer! Honest!), occurs in the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996; the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series). Seven year-old Brandon “Bran” Stark is riding home with his father and brothers from his first experience witnessing one of his father’s most difficult duties as a lord, the execution of a criminal; his father insists that if he is to sentence men to die, he should be the one to execute them, and likewise insists that his sons learn of and witness this once they are old enough. Two of Bran’s brothers have been debating whether the man died bravely or as a coward, and when Bran asks his father which was true, his father turns the question around to him. “Can a man be brave when he is afraid?” Bran asks. “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father replies.
On the surface the line might seem obvious, an appeal to some of our very trite narratives about courage in the face of danger and the like. But to my mind the moment, like all of Martin’s amazingly dense and complex series, works instead to undermine our easy narratives and force us to confront more difficult and genuine truths. That is, I believe we tend to define bravery, courage, heroism as the absence of fear, as those individuals who in the face of danger do not feel the same limiting emotions that others do and so can rise to the occasion more fully. But Martin’s truth is quite the opposite—that bravery is instead something that is found through and then beyond fear, that it is only by admitting the darker and more potentially limiting realities that we can then strive for the brightest and most ideal possibilities. I find that insight so potent not only because of its potential to revise oversimplifying narratives and force us to confront a complex duality instead, but also because it posits a version of heroism that any individual can achieve—if everyone feels fear in the face of danger, then everyone has the potential to be brave as well.
HBO premiered the first episode of their series A Game of Thrones last night; the first season will cover all of that first book of Martin’s, and so on for subsequent seasons if the show is renewed. I didn’t watch it, although I’m sure I will at some point, and I hear very good things. But if that’s one reason why I’m thinking about this exchange again today, the other is the New England-specific holiday that has us at home with the boys: Patriot’s Day. As with our narratives of courage and heroism, I believe that far too many of our ideals of patriotism focus on what I would call the easy kind: the patriotism that salutes a flag, that sings an anthem, that pledges allegiance, that says things like “God bless America” and “greatest country in the world” by rote. Whatever the communal value of such patriotism, it asks virtually nothing of individuals, and does even less to push a nation to be the best version of itself (if anything, it argues that the nation is already that best version). So in parallel to Martin’s line, I would argue for the harder and more genuine kind of patriotism, the kind that faces the darkest realities and strives for the brightest hope through that recognition, the kind that, when asked “Can an American be a patriot if he/she is critical of his/her country?,” replies, “That is the only time an American can be a patriot.”
Happy Patriot’s Day! More tomorrow, that long-promised next nominee for the Hall!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

April 16-17, 2011: Birthday Presence

Saturday was my younger son Kyle’s fourth birthday. Besides making me feel as if I’m living in a VCR (sorry, dating myself, DVD player) with a permanently stuck fast-forward button, that occasion has got me thinking about four very complex and significant births in great works of American art (three of which are in texts I’ve written about in this space before, but they’re worth coming back to):
1)      The second half of William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923): The shortest stanza of Williams’ poem comes at its exact midpoint, and feels as if we could be in for a vision of spring not at all unlike T.S. Eliot’s bleak “April is the cruelest month” opening of The Waste Land. “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches—“ writes Williams, and, with the bleak imagery of the opening stanzas (and their setting near “the road to the contagious hospital”) in mind, we prepare for the worst. But while the world into which the final three stanzas’ subjects emerge is certainly far from idealized—“They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter”—the emergence, “the stark dignity of / entrance,” is that much more powerful as a result. And so too is the poem’s final, hard-earned faith in the future: “rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.”
2)      The opening chapter of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901): My first post here was on the greatness of Chesnutt’s novel (especially in contrast with the darkness of its central events), and I won’t repeat myself here. But it’s worth noting how fully the opening chapter, entitled “At Break of Day”—in which the novel’s principal white protagonists, Olivia Carteret and her husband (Major Carteret), greet the birth of their long-awaited son, although only after Olivia and the baby seem nearly certain to die instead—foreshadows the novel’s surprisingly optimistic final moment, Chesnutt’s ability to imagine and narrate hope and a potentially brighter future in even the darkest night of American existence.
3)      The third verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete” (2009): “Pete,” the much-maligned (at least by Springsteen fans whose opinions I’ve encountered), 8-minute opening track on the album Working on a Dream, is to my mind a truly great American song. There are lots of reasons why I’d make that case, and maybe a future blog post in there; but for now I’d emphasize the birth and identity of Pete’s mixed-race (half-white, half-Navajo) daughter in the third verse. It’s her birth, and Pete’s recognition of how much of himself is now caught up in her, that fully changes Pete from mythic/legendary/idealized boyish anti-hero to a maturing, complex American man; and similarly it’s her plaintive appeal to the memory of her father that brings the song’s final verse to both a tragic and yet a thematically rich closing image.
4)      The climatic sequence of The Opposite of Sex (1998): There’s no single sequence in Don Roos’s hilarious, smart, and ultimately very moving first film that better highlights its multiple strengths—from Christina Ricci’s pitch-perfect and post-modern voiceover narration to the complex and evolving interrelationships between the movie’s six (at least) main characters—than the climactic birth of the Ricci’s character’s son. To tell you whose son he is, what happens in this sequence, or how it leads into the film’s funny and powerful concluding images would be to spoil a film that, like all of these texts, deserves to be reborn again and again with each new reading, listening, or viewing.
Happy 4th, Kyle! More tomorrow, back to regularly scheduled blog programming!
PS. Five links to start with:
3)      The lyrics to “Pete”:
4)      Extended trailer for Opposite:
5)      OPEN: Any births (real or artistic) you’d share?

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15, 2011: What Would Change 4, The Melting Pot

[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
Multicultural scholars and writers have long recognized a central, if very inconvenient, truth about the ideal of the melting pot: that while in the official narrative of that concept every arrival to America (from everywhere) goes into the pot and comes out part of a new, combinatory identity that isn’t like (or at least isn’t the same as) any of them, in the most commonly constructed versions of that narrative the formula has been quite different; in those, everybody who isn’t an Anglo-American goes into the pot and comes out closer to that Anglo-American culture and identity. After all, if, as I argued a couple posts ago, we often mean “Anglo-” or at least “white American” when we say “All-American” (for example), that would certainly likewise imply that the Americans whom the melting pot produces are similarly linked to that specific and very limiting idea of a dominant national culture and identity. For this reason, one of multicultural’s central tenets has long been the need to reject the melting pot narrative in favor of other possibilities: one popular alternative has been the stew pot, in which the ingredients remain more distinct and all contribute to the flavor.
I agree entirely about what the melting pot has meant in practice far too much of the time, but would also argue that the stew pot narrative and its ilk don’t emphasize nearly enough the complicated mixture of ingredients that has not only defined America from its beginnings, but likewise changed entirely each individual ingredient. I will admit that I haven’t quite worked out a pitch-perfect alternative image through which to capture my idea of cross-cultural transformation, but one possibility would be a stained-glass window: such a window is indeed composed of colored pieces that begin with individual and separate identities, but the beauty and power of the window lies precisely in the combination, in the way in which the colors work together and influence each other and create an overall effect that would be impossible without the full, interconnected whole. And, of course, a stained-glass window’s beauty is only truly apparent, or at least can only truly be perceived and appreciated, when the light hits it—and of course I believe that the light of a new and more complex historical and national understanding is vitally important for all Americans if we are to perceive and celebrate our true communal identity and possibility, and hope in my small way to have contributed to that process with this book.
More this weekend, a tribute post in honor of a very special occasion.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14, 2011: What Would Change 3, Mixture

[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
We’ve always had a great deal of difficulty, as a society, responding to the idea—much less the identities—of mixed-race Americans. That’s perhaps especially true of my native South, what with the whole deep-seated, paranoid fear of miscegenation somehow coexisting with the millions of, y’know, miscegenations being committed by slaveholders. But national narratives like the idea of the tragic mulatto/a go well beyond just the South, and include in many instances, for example, mixed-Native American characters such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Cora or Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. And even into our 21st-century moment, I believe (and argue in my book’s Conclusion) that we’ve had a very difficult time acknowledging or engaging in any extended way with Obama’s mixed-race identity—whether we’re talking about the racial slurs from the far right or the proud embrace of the “first Black president” from the left, definitions of Obama’s identity have pretty consistently elided his hybridity in favor of a simpler but significantly less accurate racial singularity.
As the father of a couple of mixed-race boys, I know I’ve got some personal bias here. But my argument isn’t that mixed-race Americans make up a significant percentage of our population—they don’t, although the numbers are certainly growing—but rather that they are hugely representative of our 21st-century status, of what it means to be descended from a heritage of cross-cultural transformation. That their parents experienced such transformations in a more visible or intimate way—and thus that their children carry that heritage on their faces and in their genes—only serves to highlight and amplify a kind of hybridity that I believe is profoundly shared across all American identities. I’ve been getting in drafts of the multigenerational family timelines and histories that my students are writing in a couple classes, and while only a couple of the (more than 60) students are mixed-race, without exception their families and heritages include striking cross-cultural transformations of one kind or another. We’re just a bunch of mutts, to quote Obama himself, and it’s high-time we recognized and embraced the most visible representatives of that national heritage of mixture.
Effect #4 tomorrow,

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 13, 2011: What Would Change 2, “All-American”

[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
A few years ago, as informal research toward this book, I thought about documenting each time I heard or read someone unthinkingly or at least unanalytically use a phrase like “All-American” to mean a very particular kind of identity; within the first week of the project I had encountered at least a dozen such usages: from a radio DJ saying, in response to false rumors that pop star Kelly Clarkson was gay, “Kelly’s an All-American girl, she likes boys”; to a story about a local (white) professional athlete that described him as having “All-American good looks”; to many other, similarly innocuous but very telling occasions and usages. I gave up on keeping track, but not without having had confirmed my sense that virtually all of the time “All-American” means that particular, white/Anglo identity—and not, in nearly all cases, in an intended (much less a discriminatory) way, but just because that’s what the phrase and its ilk have come to mean.
As is the case with each of these changes, I think it would be some progress just to reverse the existing narratives—to describe Rihanna as “All-American,” to write about Albert Pujols’ “All-American good looks.” (And yes, both of those individuals have immigrated to the United States from other countries; that’s part of my point, but I’d happily substitute Harriet Tubman and Sitting Bull to get the ball rolling if that works better.) But as is my book’s most central goal, I would find it even more satisfying if “All-American” was especially reserved for the most complex, hybrid, mixed identities—for the Mariah Careys and Derek Jeters, the Barack Obamas and Aidan and Kyle Tsao Railtons. After all, with the removal of mixed-race as a separate category on the 2010 census (after it had been added for the first time in 2000), individuals with that element of identity aren’t able to check one box to self-identify with any accuracy—so let’s just call them the most All-American of us all. You see, Sarah Palin, “real Americans” aren’t red staters or blue staters—they’re purple.
Effect #3 tomorrow,

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 12, 2011: What Would Change 1, Language

[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
While some of the clamor for legally establishing English as our national language seems clearly based on xenophobia and bigotry, I can certainly understand another factor in that perspective: the worry that a country with multiple languages can devolve into the kind of divided community that, at least in part, Yugoslavia was before its (interconnected) implosion. But the problem I have with these arguments is that they overwhelmingly tend—as so much of the traditional/Anglo/Christian narrative of American identity does—to assume as a given that America once had a single shared language (English) and has moved away from that unifying voice over the centuries (or, often in this narrative, in the last few decades).
But from my historical lens, America has been deeply multilingual from the beginning—including not only the English of the Puritans in Massachusetts and the explorers in Virginia, but Dutch in New Amsterdam, Spanish in Florida, French in the upper Midwest, Russian in Alaska, French Creole in Louisiana, and literally hundreds of Native American languages across the continent. And while a multicultural historical narrative might emphasize the diversity across those languages, a cross-cultural one genuinely focuses on the multilingual side—on how the English of the Puritans comes into contact with the Wampanoag of Squanto, and how both languages and cultures are fundamentally changed by that contact and made into a new, hybrid, American voice. Does that mean that all Americans are or have ever been multilingual? Unfortunately  no—but it does mean that American English, like any and all other languages here, has been profoundly shaped by this cross-cultural community. And so while English might indeed be a national language, that means something very different than the political advocates for the idea believe.
Effect #2 tomorrow,

Sunday, April 10, 2011

April 9-10, 2011 [Academic work post 10]: Big Pimping

[First, a redux of two paragraphs of my earlier “Time Sensitive” post:]
…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….
[Now back to the present:]
The NEASA Conference Committee met yesterday, and the program for our event is beginning to come together. We’ve got a really diverse and rich group of proposals, and should field a roster of very interesting panels across our two days. We’re also going to feature a ton of other events—a plenary panel on Plymouth/Plimoth featuring cultural and regional studies scholars, a Wampanoag tribal historian and a Wampanoag spiritual and creative artist, and an anthropologist and advisor to the Pequot Museum; a keynote address and another session by James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me; a Friday evening performance by local Native American artists; a number of other sessions (on Plimoth, for educators, etc) that will run concurrent to the scholarly ones; and tons of other ideas still percolating to add to those as well. I think it’s going to be a great couple of days!
I’m pimping it again here, though, because that greatness will be significantly greater if we can get a lot of people, including just interested attendees, to come. I plan to publicize it hard in all sorts of ways, but if even one or two people read this and decide to come, that’ll be a great addition. My plan is to offer a very reasonable “Attendee” registration rate, to encourage that kind of participation. If you’re local, or if you’d like to travel to a very historic American site in the fall, we’d love to have you! More tomorrow, my latest nominee for the Hall!
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.)