MyAmericanFuture

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Monday, October 31, 2011

October 31, 2011: October Recap

October 1-2: American Wedding: My sister’s wedding inspires some thoughts, both personal and AmericanStudies.

October 3: Join Us, Pleas: The first of a week’s worth of posts on or around the upcoming (now just four days away!) New England American Studies Association conference—this one just extends a couple invitations.
October 4: NEASA Follow Ups:  The second of the week’s NEASA-inspired posts, this one with additional information and links on the conference and its speakers and participants.

October 5: Of Plimoth Plantation: The third of the week’s NEASA-inspired posts, on three AmericanStudies goals and elements of the living history museum at Plimoth Plantation.
October 6: Native Voices: The fourth of the week’s NEASA-inspired posts, on some of the complex and crucial AmericanStudies questions surrounding Native American writing and scholarship.

October 7-9 [Link-Tastic Post 3]: NEASA Conference: The fifth and final NEASA-inspired post brings together some key conference-related links.
October 10: Columbus Days: A Columbus Day special, highlighting six prior posts in which I tried to capture some of the complexities of the exploration and settlement era.

October 11: Remembering an Iconoclastic Genius: While thinking about Steve Jobs in order to write a couple posts inspired by his passing, I came across the story of the death of another, even more unquestionably impressive and inspiring American, Professor Derrick Bell.
October 12: The Messy, Troubling, Democratizing Machine: The first Jobs-inspired post, on the duality of the machine and the garden in American history, culture, and identity.

October 13: Gospel Musings: The second Jobs-inspired post, on the Gilded Age’s robber barons and their Gospel of Wealth narrative.
October 14: Gilded Age Addendum: A follow up to the Gilded Age post, focused on the self-made man narrative and its continuing contemporary presence and salience.

October 15-16: Information, Please:  As part of my ongoing work on a proposal (for an American Writers Musuem traveling exhibition) focused on contemporary immigrant American authors, a request (which still stands!) for suggestions for interesting such writers.
October 17: Finding the Right Plath: A week of posts on authors for whom our dominant narratives are over-simplified or even inaccurate begins with a case for re-reading Sylvia Plath.

October 18: Uncle Re-read: The week continues with a post on Song of the South (to which we shouldn’t necessarily return) and Joel Chandler Harris (to whose works we should).
October 19: The Importance of Reading Ernest: As the week rolls on, I admit that Ernest Hemingway wasn’t the nicest of guys but make the case for reading his fiction nonetheless.

October 20: The Wright Readings: The week’s final new post argues that Richard Wright’s two best books remain as resonant and vital for AmericanStudiers as any American works.
October 21: Out of His Hands [Repeat]: A repeated post rounds out the week by noting that Jonathan Edwards was a lot more than just a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

October 22-23 [Tribute Post 24]: A New Favorite Songwriter: Civil War historian and blogger Kevin Levin points me to an amazing song about African American Union troops and its (anonymous but impressive) songwriter.
October 24: Every Day I Write the Book? (or the Website?): Pondering my next options for this blog and its work, and asking for your input as I continue to do so.

October 25 [Scholarly Review 6]: An Exemplary Voice: First of four posts on exemplary digital AmericanStudies scholarship, this one on the “Voice of the Shuttle” digital archive.
October 26 [Scholarly Review 7]: How Great is This Valley?: Second digital scholarship post, on the “Valley of the Shadow” Civil War history site.

October 27 [Scholarly Review 8]: Cross Purposes: Third digital scholarship post, on the Virginia AmericanStudies program’s “Xroads” site.
October 28 [Link-Tastic Post 4]: Literary Links: Fourth digital scholarship post, on Donna Campbell’s thorough and helpful collection of American literary links.

October 29-30: Boo(ks)!: Halloween special, on five of the scariest works in American literary history.
More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Any topics, themes, events, figures, texts, or other subjects you’d love to see here as we move into November? Just let me know!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 29-30, 2011: Boo(ks)!

Since Monday will be the October Recap, this weekend’s the time for a holiday post, on five of the scariest works of or moments in American literature (in chronological order):

1)      Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland, or the Transformation (1798): Brown’s novel suffers from some seriously over-wrought prose, and it can be hard to take its narrator seriously as a result; the pseudo-scientific resolution of its central mystery also leaves a good bit to be desired. But since that central mystery involves a husband and father who turns into a murderous psychopath bent on destroying his own idyllic home and family, well, none of those flaws can entirely take away the spookiness.

2)      Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839): Just about any Poe story would fit in this space. But given how fully this story’s scares depend precisely on the idea of what reading and art can do to the human imagination and psyche of their susceptible audiences, it seems like a good choice.

3)      Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948): I don’t think there’s anything scarier, in the world or in the imagination, than what people are capable of doing to each other. And Jackson’s story is probably the most concise and perfect exemplification of that idea in American literary history. I’ve read arguments that connect it to the Holocaust, which makes sense timing-wise; but I’d say the story is purposefully, and terrifyingly, more universal than that.

4)      Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt” (1950; don’t know why the font is so small in that online version, but you can always copy and paste and then enlarge—it’s worth it!): The less I give away about Bradbury’s story, the better. Suffice it to say it’s a pretty good argument for not having kids, or at least for only letting them play with very basic and non-technological toys. Ah well, that ship has sailed for me.

5)      Mark Danielewksi, House of Leaves (2000; not an online version, but my prior blog post): As I wrote in that earlier post, Danielewksi’s novel is thoroughly post-modern and yet entirely terrifying at the same time. Don’t believe it’s possible? Read the book—but try to keep some lights on, or maybe just read outside, while you do.

More Monday, that October recap,

Ben

PS. Any scary stories you’d highlight?

Friday, October 28, 2011

October 28, 2011 [Link-tastic Post 4]: Literary Links

Ceding the authority in this last digital-scholarship-focused day to a very impressive page of American literary links, maintained by Professor Donna Campbell of Washington State University:

Thanks for the great work, Dr. Campbell! More this weekend,

Ben
PS. Any scholarly websites you’d add into this week’s mix?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 2011 [Scholarly Review 8]: Cross Purposes

[As a part of my own thoughts toward next steps and extended versions of this blog, but also as a way to highlight some of the amazing models for digital scholarship that are already out there, I’m going to focus this week on impressive scholarly sites. That would be in addition to the two sites of Stephen Railton’s and the site of Kevin Levin’s that I’ve already featured in this space. This is the third in that series.]

I know it’s going to make me seem like a total homer for University of Virginia sites, but there’s no way around it: I can’t spend a week focusing on exemplary digital AmericanStudies scholarship and not include the UVa AmericanStudies program’s longtime, flagship site, “Xroads” (pronounced, as I read it anyway, “Crossroads”). “Xroads,” which began in the same mid-1990s foundational moment as my prior two focal sites (1994 in this case) and continued to evolve and grow for at least the next decade, has always been first and foremost designed as a resource for undergraduate students in and around AmericanStudies; and while there would be lots of reasons to include it in this week’s conversations, I think it’s particularly great at illustrating a couple of key ways in which digital AmericanStudies scholarship can make both undergraduate work and teaching to undergraduates simpler, stronger, and more sourced and supported.
For one thing, there are the hypertexts. “Xroads” has long been surpassed in the sheer quantity and range of available hypertexts by an archive like Project Gutenberg, which sometimes seems as if it includes a hypertext version of every text published before 1900; so if you’re looking to find a particular author or work, there are definitely better options. But for an AmericanStudier, there’s just something really compelling about a list of hypertexts that features, in sequence: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, T.G. Steward’s A Charleston Love Story (Steward is a pretty amazing dude, about whom more in a subsequent post; the link to that hypertext is apparently broken, but still, part of the sequence), and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each of those has a good deal to offer AmericanStudies students on its own terms, but I think there’d be something to be said for asking students to find ways to link any three of them together—and the very interdisciplinary, AmericanStudies-centered hypertext list at “Xroads” is really just a whole set of such assignments and conversations waiting to happen.

And so, for another thing, is everything else on the site. Having team-taught (with a few different historian colleagues) a few semesters of an Introduction to American Studies course (on the 1980s) at Fitchburg State, I can say with no hesitation that the best AmericanStudies days in a class are the ones where a bunch of different texts and media and methodologies bump up against each other and influence each other and produce unexpected ideas and conversations as a result—the day when a Cosby episode and two rap songs come into contact with a Toni Morrison short story and a Spike Lee clip and some statistics about the cocaine epidemic and urban poverty; the conversation that moves from Betty Friedan and historical details about birth control to Cyndi Lauper and Working Girl, with stops at second wave feminism and Audre Lorde along the way. The “Xroads” section on the 1930s is a very direct parallel to those kinds of interdisciplinary, multimedia, layered and contextual and interconnected AmericanStudies approaches to a historical and cultural moment, and is one of the best such concise, online intros to AmericanStudies I’ve ever found. And on a more diffuse but just as valuable level, the whole of the site exemplifies such a scholarly approach: you can get, with a click or two in each case, from a virtual tour of the national Capitol building to a hyperlink-filled essay on Southern identities and myths, realities and images; from galleries about the works of Alexander Wilson, American ornithologist to a feature on Henry Luce’s 1937 newsreel The March of Time.
There’s plenty more to discover on the site, including, under the “Yellow Pages” headings, very thorough (at least as of the late 2000s) lists of resources and links within different scholarly categories—and all of it geared quite directly toward bringing out the best in our student AmericanStudiers. Not a bad central purpose, I’d say. More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      “Xroads”: http://xroads.virginia.edu/

2)      The Hypertexts section: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/hypertex.html

3)      OPEN: Still repeating, with one more day to go: any nominations for sites I should include and/or that we should all know about?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 26, 2011 [Scholarly Review 7]: How Great Is This Valley?

[As a part of my own thoughts toward next steps and extended versions of this blog, but also as a way to highlight some of the amazing models for digital scholarship that are already out there, I’m going to focus this week on impressive scholarly sites. That would be in addition to the two sites of Stephen Railton’s and the site of Kevin Levin’s that I’ve already featured in this space. This is the second in that series.]

Yesterday’s focal point website, “Voice of the Shuttle,” is great at least in part because it utilizes, amplifies, and makes more productive and meaningful work that, realistically speaking, only the web could and can do—database and archive construction that would have taken decades and more moving trucks than spring training if it were to happen in the real world, made accessible to and searchable by scholars and researchers from around the world, able to be individualized and continually updated and to evolve as the web and the sources and the scholarship and conversations likewise evolve. To my mind, there’s obviously a great deal to be said for using new technologies in those new ways, and the plans to parallel “Voice” to new online concepts such as playlists and social networking are perfect examples of how such evolving technologies and ideas can be wedded to genuine, practical, and beneficial scholarly purposes and work.
But as I wrote in that above-linked post about my Dad’s websites, there’s at least as much value in finding ways for the web’s resources and strengths to help us do the things that scholars and teachers have always tried to do; and today’s focal web site, “The Valley of the Shadow,” exemplifies that approach. “Valley” actually predates even “Voice,” and coincidentally originated just down the hall (or maybe up a flight of stairs) from the room where that young AmericanStudier about whom I wrote yesterday was doing his first web-browsing; it was the brainchild of then-University of Virginia historian (now President of the University of Richmond) Ed Ayers, who developed it over the next decade and a half with a team of colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students, and tech wizards (one reason why both Ayers’ site and my Dad’s ones are so strong is the presence at Virginia of institutions like the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the  Virginia Center for Digital History). “Valley” represents, as the intro page at the link below illustrates, an attempt to capture one of the most crucial and yet complex and often vexed subjects for any American historian: the voices and experiences of Americans from particular communities and time periods, in this case two Shenandoah Valley towns (one in Pennsylvania, one in Virginia) before, during, and after the Civil War.

I could spend many more paragraphs than this one and fail to capture the incredible breadth, depth, and compelling interest and power of what Ayers and the “Valley” scholars and historians were able to find and include on the site; the truth is that the site’s work and its unique and engaging structure speak for themselves, and I encourage you to check it out. In terms of that structure, I would highlight one more way in which the site takes some of what historians are most interested in doing and uses the web to amplify these questions: the different categories of primary sources framed on the site’s main page are both treated as distinct and complicated individual texts, ones with which any reader and historian must grapple on their own terms; while the overarching structure puts those different categories in multiple relationships to each other, both within each time period (the ways church records and census and tax records can reveal different sides to these communities during the pre-war years, for example) and across the three periods (the identities captured and created in letters and diaries from each period, for another). If American historians are consistently working to find and analyze voices and experiences, they’re also consistently thinking about the kinds of sources they have, what contexts are necessary to approach each source, and how they can read them on their own and in conversation with other sources. The site doesn’t answer those questions for any individual user; quite the opposite, it allows every researcher to begin asking and answering his or her own version of them.
Take a look, I guarantee (or your money back!) you’ll learn something. More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      “Valley”: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/

2)      BackStory, a Virginia radio program on American history for which Ayers is one of main the contributors: http://backstoryradio.org/

3)      OPEN: To repeat yesterday’s, any nominations for sites I should include and/or that we should all know about?


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October 25, 2011 [Scholarly Review 6]: An Exemplary Voice

[As a part of my own thoughts toward next steps and extended versions of this blog, but also as a way to highlight some of the amazing models for digital scholarship that are already out there, I’m going to focus this week on impressive scholarly sites. This is the first in that series.]

For those of us who’ve grown up with the world-wide web, who (to get very specific and autobiographical for a second) can still remember going to our Dad’s office in the early 1990s and accessing what was (as I remember it) a long alphabetical list of web documents and conversations, it can be pretty difficult to cast our minds back with any depth or analytical rigor to the state of the internet circa 1994. Moreover, so few specific web resources (or even general types of websites, for that matter) have been around for that long that such analytical historicizing can feel interesting but largely irrelevant to the state of the internet in 2011.Yet one of the best resources for digital scholarship, the University of California Santa Barbara-housed website “VoS: Voice of the Shuttle,”  has, in fact, been in existence since that distant year; and both the site’s consistent goals and its impressive evolution model what digital scholarship can be and do.
Since its origins “Voice” has presented itself not as a venue for scholarly writing or argument per se, but rather as an analytical database, one of the first online scholarly archives (if not indeed the first such archive). Librarians, archivists, and scholars have been posting, uploading, scanning, retyping, and otherwise putting manuscripts and primary sources online for as long as there’s been an internet; the issues were thus from the beginning ones of awareness and access, of letting other scholars and researchers know what was out there and giving them the tools for both finding and utilizing those online materials. In its earliest iterations (a 1999 version of which you can find at the second link below) “Voice” did have an overt scholarly perspective and lens, a women’s studies approach alluded to in its title (a reference both to Greek mythology and to modern literary theory) and made explicit in most of its first subjects and focal points. But while it was certainly possible to focus on and engage with that scholarly perspective in using the site, it was also equally possible—and, I would argue, more the site’s central goal—to find your way into and through the resources linked there; the title’s ultimate meaning, in this argument, was simply that the site gave an online voice to a much broader number of literary and cultural figures (of both genders and in every other conceivable category of identity) than would have been possible without the site’s archival work.

Thanks in no small measure to the pioneering work of sites like “Voice,” there are now literally hundreds of scholarly archives, including many housed through huge institutions or organizations such as the Library of Congress, Project Muse, JSTOR, and various university libraries. Recognizing that abundance, the editors and scholars behind “Voice” have done something that might be common in the digital world generally but I have found pretty rare in the world of digital scholarship: radically and successfully adjust their site’s identity and goals without losing its originating purpose and identity. As the current site, available at the first link, makes clear, those revisions are still a work in progress; but the new “Voice” already features a much more interactive and multi-directional scholarly database, one that connects primary and secondary sources through both numerous categories and through the particular frames of a given researcher and starting point. The site will also offer databases and archives for resources more specific to conversations about teaching, publishing, conferences, and a variety of other parallel academic and scholarly questions. And the new site’s more open-ended qualities will eventually be exemplified by the opportunity for individual and linked groups of users to customize their own sets of links and resources, turning the site into an example of social networking on a scholarly and research-driven level.
But as with all of this week’s focal points, don’t take my word for it—check out “Voice” for yourself! I think you’ll be impressed, and maybe even find some resources you didn’t know about; I know I have. More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      “Voice”: http://vos.ucsb.edu/index.asp

2)      1999 version of “Voice,” as captured through the Wayback Machine: http://web.archive.org/web/19991128221800/http://vos.ucsb.edu/

3)      OPEN: Any nominations for sites I should include and/or that we should all know about?


Monday, October 24, 2011

October 24, 2011: Every Day I Write the Book? (or the Website?)

With the NEASA conference (less than two weeks away now—still time to register through www.neasa.org, or at least check out the pre-conference blogging!) and the American Writers Museum work taking up a good bit of my time these days, and teaching and all other things Fitchburg State taking up a good bit more, and those two junior AmericanStudiers (pictured) taking up, well, all the rest, to say that I haven’t had a lot of time to focus on longer-term projects, and specifically on my book plans, would be an understatement. But while any significant work on my ongoing third book manuscript—about which I blogged here—is going to have to wait until the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot as well lately about ways to bring some of the work I’ve done in this space to new audiences and venues; specifically, I’ve been considering two main options: an e-book, with extended and more hypertext-y versions of these posts, perhaps organized around a year of AmericanStudies reading; or a website, with different categories of archived posts, a range of possible links and multimedia sections, and space for readers to add their voices and ideas.

I can see some immediate arguments for each of these two: the e-book would reflect what I see as the relatively in-depth nature of these pieces and the experience of reading them, while still allowing for readers to connect to the different links (and even more in a hypertext-y style), to move between different posts more smoothly, and otherwise to build their own reading experience while being guided by some of my main ideas; whereas the website would be a more fully interactive and reader-driven project, one through which individual readers could certainly connect to and read at length particular posts, but which would make multimedia and multitextual and multivocal conversations a lot more fully possible and present. The website would of course be free, which has plenty of obvious and real benefits; but working on the e-book would force me to think actively about how I turn this blog’s work into something more focused and marketable and thus, I believe, allow me to work on connecting it to new audiences and conversations. This choice is not necessarily either-or, of course, but on the other hand I don’t necessarily want to spend a ton of time working on one of these options if I’m eventually (and perhaps more ultimately) going to create the other one.
Obviously this process and decision is mine to wrestle with, and I apologize if this is getting a bit too inside baseball. But I wanted to write a post about this possible next steps, not only to allow me to figure out some of these ideas by writing about them, but also and more importantly because I’d greatly value any and all feedback my readers and fellow AmericanStudiers might have: not only because you’re a smart bunch, but also because of course you’d be great models for potential readers and responders to either or both of those next versions of this blog, and so I’d be especially interested to hear what sounds like it would be the most interesting, engage you all the most, or otherwise what you’d say in response to these two ideas. So please feel free to express your perspective in comments, or to email me your thoughts (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu).

More tomorrow, back to our regularly scheduled programming,
Ben

PS. No links, but I suppose I do have two more questions: are there any e-books that you have found particularly good at engaging you as a reader? And any scholarly (broadly defined!) websites that have done the same?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

October 22-23, 2011 [Tribute post 24]: A New Favorite Songwriter

This is also one of my Guest Posts of Sorts, as this song was found and is highlighted in a blog post by Kevin Levin, about whose great Civil War Memory site I blogged here. I’ll let him do the honor of introducing you, as he just introduced me, to this amazing text and the inspiring anonymous African American Union soldier who composed it (likely intending it, as the first commenter on Levin’s post noted, to be sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

America can get you down sometimes—or, to be more precise about my point, it can get me down sometimes. But it is, as I hope this blog has helped to highlight in all sorts of posts and ways, also a continual source of inspiration, and this is most definitely my latest exemplification of that possibility and power.

More next week,
Ben

PS. Any inspiring American texts, people, events, ideas, stuff you’d highlight?

Friday, October 21, 2011

October 21, 2011: Out of His Hands [Repeat]

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This repeat post is the fifth and last in that series.]

Finding an audience, being read and remembered, is of course a central if not the central goal of all of us who write or seek to share our voices with the world in any medium, but it can without question be a double-edged sword in all sorts of ways. Steven King, for example, has written extensively about the experience of being defined so fully as a horror writer that it becomes hugely difficult to publish (and even to a degree write) anything else. A heightened sense of audience expectations based on the success of his first novel, Invisible Man (1952), seems to have crippled Ralph Ellison’s ability to finish any of his subsequent novels (which were all published only after he had died). But those audience-driven problems at least arose during the writers’ lives, making it possible (if certainly not easy) for them to respond, to write out of those boxes, to find new audiences or challenge their existing ones, or even, of course, to ignore audience demands or responses (as much as any writer can).
Infinitely—eternally, even—more difficult is when a sizeable and multi-generational audience latches onto a particular, not necessarily representative text and uses it to define the writer’s whole career and perspective after the writer has passed away. This is a potential problem for any writer whose works are (or, more exactly for this problem, one of whose works is) frequently anthologized—and if that writer was also a preacher, and thus produced literally tens of thousands of sermons among his many other written works, the danger of one of those sermons being turned into his anthologized, career-defining work is both greater and significantly more unfair. And that’s precisely what has happened with Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theological philosopher and writer, one of the 18th century’s leading intellectuals, and a principal influence on the First Great Awakening, the nation’s most widespread and democratic religious movement. Yet for generations of American schoolchildren—and since those schoolchildren tend to grow up to be adults, for generations of Americans period—Edwards has meant one thing and one thing only: the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), a fire-and-brimstone, extremely dramatic, old-school Puritanical text that Edwards delivered in Enfield, Connecticut in the midst of the First Great Awakening.

“Sinners” certainly captures a particular and powerful side of Edwards the preacher, and illustrates without question why he was able to produce such significant fervor and conversion rates during the Great Awakening. But it’s likely that any number of fellow preachers, in that era and in American history more generally, could have and did deliver very similar sermons, some week in and week out. It is instead in both the breadth and the quality of his interests and ideas and writings, as well as his wide range of forward-thinking opinions (on issues such as women’s rights and roles in the church, Native Americans, and scientific discoveries), that Edwards outstrips any other American theologian and would greatly enrich modern audiences’ perspectives on faith, spirituality, and the church in America’s history and identity. Edwards at his best (which was most of the time) combined the theological rigor of the Puritans with many of the Enlightenment’s most important advances, including those aforementioned opinions but also an abiding interest in aesthetics and a willingness to recognize the role of personal emotion and perspectives (what Edwards sometimes called “the affections”) in determining the shape and course of one’s faith. Even his tragically early death at the age of 54 was the result of his impressive openness and desire to lead his fellow citizens into better paths—having just taken over the Presidency of Princeton College from his son-in-law Aaron Burr (the father to the future Founding Father and Vice President of the same name), Edwards decided to demonstrate the need for a new medical innovation, smallpox inoculations, by getting one himself, but died from the resulting infection.
Edwards’ literary future and identity are of course out of his hands, as all of ours will one day be (and if I had to accept that gaining a multi-century audience would mean that they’d only be reading one blog post, well, I might take that deal). But on the other hand, they remain very much in our collective hands, and the more we can try to reconnect with the much richer and more impressive works and career and man behind “Sinners,” the closer we can get to inhabiting the kind of America for which Edwards consistently worked. More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      The full text of “Sinners”: http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4yMTo0Ny53amVv

2)      A comprehensive collection of Edwards’ writings at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center; just the list alone illustrates his breadth and depth: http://edwards.yale.edu/research/browse

3)      OPEN: Any other writers who are unfairly linked to or defined by one text?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 20, 2011: The Wright Readings

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This is the fourth in that series.]

Neither the specifics of the American literary canon nor the broader trends of literary history are really this cut-and-dry, but nonetheless it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that one of the reasons behind Ernest Hemingway’s late 20th-century removal from many syllabi and narratives of modernist American literature has been the rediscovery of and new emphasis on Zora Neale Hurston, and in particular her Depression-era novel of the rural Southern African American experience, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Moreover, along with that new emphasis on Hurston’s novel—of which I’m definitely a fan, and on which more in a future post—has come a concurrent new focus on a controversial review of Their Eyes (alongside another, largely forgotten novel, Waters Turpin’s These Low Grounds) by Hurston’s fellow African American writer and novelist Richard Wright. In the review, sections of which are linked below, Wright directly accuses Hurston of employing a “minstrel technique” in order to “make the ‘white folks’ laugh,” and of creating a text which in its “sensory sweep … carries no theme, no message, no thought.”
Wright’s interpretation of Hurston’s novel is not without its merits, and his points about the differences between intended or imagined white and African American audiences, while overly simplistic, certainly represent the kind of complex and challenging issue with which Harlem Renaissance writers like Hurston (and contemporaries like Wright himself) continually had to engage. But his word choices and tone in the review are, to be blunt, unnecessarily derogatory and hostile; while I don’t see much evidence for the arguments that gender played into his dismissals in any central way (he wasn’t much kinder to Turpin’s book, although he did indeed go further in his language toward Hurston), there’s no doubt in my mind that he went too far, and that the late 20th century scholarly narratives which have critiqued Wright for this review are likewise not without merit. Yet any narrative about Wright that focuses on this review most definitely misses a pretty impressive forest for this single tree—that’d be the case even if Wright’s reviews or his journalistic writings in general were central to his career and work, but instead it’s in two other genres that Wright did his best and most powerful and lasting work: his first and best novel, Native Son (1940); and his first (of what would eventually become a two-part) autobiography, Black Boy (1945). No AmericanStudier can or should fail to include those two books in his or her readings into American culture, identity, history, and community.

There are many ways I could try to make the case for reading these two works—individually, but even more, to my mind, as a complementary pair—but I think the best argument actually, and somewhat ironically, blurs the line between African American and white audiences or responses on which Wright’s review of Hurston depended. On one crucial level, a linked reading of Native Son and Black Boy would represent one of American literature’s most sustained and powerful depictions of a very specific racial, regional, and historical identity: young black men born into the Jim Crow South, shifting with the Great Migration to the North’s booming urban centers, and trying to figure out who and what they are in both places and in American history and identity more generally. Yet on another, just as significant level, both books engage with a host of themes and identities that transcend any particular racial or regional community, and lie instead at the very heart of the American experience; to highlight only one, both Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Wright himself in Black Boy struggle continually with the question of whether their heritage, their family background and legacy, the way they are perceived by others, and other external elements of their identity will fully influence, even drown out, their internal voices and perspectives, their powerful sense that they are different from those around them and can and should find a life and fate all their own. It’s impossible to entirely separate that theme from race and region, of course—but so too is it impossible to define these characters and texts are limited or circumscribed by the specifics of such cultural and historical details. Pardon the pun, but these books, like Wright’s works overall, are bigger than that.
More tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      Excerpts from Wright’s review of Hurston’s novel: http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam358/wrightrev.html

2)      Some interesting resources on Wright, including his less-read poetic works: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/r_wright/r_wright.htm

3)      OPEN: Last chance to nominate an author who should be re-read—tomorrow’s focus is still up for grabs!


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October 19, 2011: The Importance of Reading Ernest

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This is the third in that series.]

Not to get all Dickensian on you, but: Ernest Hemingway was an asshole. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the blog post I am going to write. If the case of Sylvia Plath about which I wrote on Monday represents one set of potential and potent downsides to an emphasis on author’s identity and biography, the case of Hemingway definitely represents another: an identity and biography that are both so strongly antagonistic to many people (in this case, especially, more or less all women) and seem so closely tied to elements of the writing (in this case, the at best less well-developed and stereotypical and at worst downright misogynistic female characters that populate many of Hemingway’s works) that it feels impossible not to focus on them and can feel equally difficult to make a case for the author’s value (or at least feels as if such a case has to start by noting the indefensible elements). And while I’m about to make the case instead that Hemingway deserves a re-reading free of such biographical biases, the fact remains, just to be as repetitive at the outset as was the narrator of A Christmas Carol, that Hemingway was (as far as I can tell) as asshole-y as a doornail.
We don’t need (and I don’t want) our authors to be saints, though, and whatever Hemingway’s personal flaws, there are at least a couple of (to my mind) indisputable and hugely significant reasons to read him, both in general and in our 21st century moment in particular. For one thing, it’s difficult to overstate how much his style revolutionized the writing of fiction in America; at the same time that his fellow American modernists like Stein and Faulkner were producing some of the most dense and layered fiction ever written, Hemingway went the other way, exemplifying his “iceberg” philosophy (writing about only the tip that protrudes above the water, and forcing the reader to imagine the rest) with a style and stories that are as impressive in what they don’t say as in what they do. No single story better captures that style than “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), a text in which virtually every element through which a reader might expect to be guided—including even character names or dialogue cues like “he said”—is withheld, resulting (in my experiences, not only as reader but in teaching the story to both first-year writing and American lit students) in a disorienting and uncomfortable but also powerfully active and invested reader response. And despite the story being published in a collection entitled Men Without Women, I would argue that both its style and the largely unmediated voices and perspectives Hemingway constructs for its male and female main characters do not privilege or undermine either gender in any stable, static, or overt way.

Gender relationships and identities are only one significant human theme, though, and the even more meaningful reason to re-read Hemingway is how amazingly well he writes about a whole range of other, equally salient, deeply AmericanStudies such themes: war and violence, sport and leisure, nature and identity, the holds the past can have on us and the ways and moments we can try to break free of it, and many more. For my money Hemingway’s best work is the final short story in his debut collection, In Our Time (1925)—the whole collection is amazingly strong, both in introducing his voice and style and in framing many of those central themes on which his body of work would consistently focus; but while most of the stories do so through a World War I-specific lens, the final story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” follows its veteran protagonist Nick Adams back to the States and out on a fishing and camping trip into the Michigan wilderness. The story doesn’t entirely avoid the kinds of pastoral idealizations of nature about which I blogged here—I once met a Japanese scholar of American literature who was so won over by those elements of the story that one of his greatest goals upon coming to America for the first time was to go fishing in the Virginia mountains—but it balances them with deeply realistic descriptions and moments. And it provides one of the very best illustrations of the potency of the iceberg style—Hemingway in this story writes almost nothing about Nick’s war experiences and wounds (literal and figurative), yet for this reader at least the story unquestionably connects to, amplifies and yet shifts, and ultimately transcends them all the same.
Quite simply, you can’t tell the story of American literature or American identity in the first half of the 20th century without Hemingway. Sure, he might be kind of like that boorish uncle who is guaranteed to piss everybody at the family reunion off before it’s over—but the family picture wouldn’t look complete, nor nearly as good, without him. More re-reading recommendations tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

1)      The full text of “Hills”: http://www.gummyprint.com/blog/archives/hills-like-white-elephants-complete-story/

2)      The full text of “Big”: http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/2010/278/resources/hemingway-two-hearted-river.pdf

3)      OPEN: Any authors (or artists in any medium) for whom you think we should get past the bio and get back to the works?


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

October 18, 2011: Uncle Re-read

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This is the second in that series.]

There are few ways in which I would claim to have had any opportunities that my boys don’t have—the opposite is far more frequently the case, which of course is precisely as it should be—but one complex and interesting such opportunity is that I had the chance to see the Walt Disney film Song of the South (1946) as a kid. I confess to not knowing the details of where or when I saw it with my Dad, but I’m sure it was in a theatrical re-release, as the film has to my knowledge never been released on home video in any format. I don’t think that’s any great loss to America’s youth or film cultures, but on the other hand as you would expect I’m not a big fan of suppressing or censoring any American text (short of perhaps something as over-the-top as Faces of Death, a film which apparently contains unedited footage of actual people’s deaths); certainly I would hope that if and when any kids do get to see it, they have the benefit (as I did, and as my boys would) of a parent who’s able to frame some of the contexts (of race, region, and slavery) into which the film fits, but it does also contain some funny and impressive (and I believe largely non-controversial) animated versions of Brer Rabbit stories, and a few (perhaps more controversial, but not any worse than Peter Pan’s “What Makes the Red Man Red?”) catchy tunes.
Song was based pretty closely on Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1881), the first in the series of books that late 19th-century Southern journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris wrote about that title character and his “legends of the old plantation.” I’ve only read the first two books in that series, Uncle and its 1883 sequel Nights with Uncle Remus—I wrote about them, in an extended version of what I’ll say in this post, as part of the “race question” question in my dissertation/first book—and certainly in some key ways found them as objectionable as the worst elements of Song of the South and as (I believe) the images conjured up by the name Uncle Remus in our collective consciousness. Uncle’s version of that title character embodies in multiple ways some of the most ideologically and socially disgusting characteristics of the plantation tradition: a former slave who wishes only to return to and recapture the world of slavery, who (in the Reconstruction-focused “Sayings” portion of the book in particular) full-throatedly rejects the potential advancements of the Reconstruction era (freedom, education, opportunities outside of the plantation world, etc.), and who seeks to influence his young post-bellum white audience through these beliefs. And through one particularly unhappy choice Nights extends and amplifies those qualities, moving the setting and characters back to the antebellum era, and thus making clear the mythologized reasons for Remus’s preference for the world of slavery and all of its benefits for himself, his wife, and his fellow slaves.

I don’t want to elide any of those aspects of Harris’s books—and I don’t believe it’s possible to read the books and fail to engage with those elements, although having encountered lots of readers who got through all of Gone with the Wind (1936) with no sense of the overarching racism of its second half’s settings and plotlines I suppose anything’s possible—but I would nonetheless also note some of the much more complex and even progressive qualities of Harris’s work in these texts. In my book’s analyses I linked those qualities to the interconnected concepts of “voice” and “dialogue” on at least three levels: the ways in which Uncle Remus’s “Brer Rabbit” stories themselves create a set of voices that seem, at least times, quite clearly allegorical for some of the less happy and idyllic sides to the world of slavery; the ways in which both books, and especially Nights, create an evolving and at times quite powerful and inspiring dialogue between Remus and the young white boy who is his audience and (I would argue) student; and the presence in Nights of three other slave voices in Remus’s cabin, each with his or her own identity and perspective (including on slavery itself), creating an exemplary, powerfully African American dialogic space from which the boy likewise can and does learn. Obviously those are interpretative points, and it’s possible to read Harris’s books quite differently—but at the least that’d mean reading them for yourself and figuring out where you come down on these questions.
That is, I suppose, the Reading Rainbow-esque theme of this whole week (although hopefully with variations and specifics that’ll make each post compelling in its own right): read the books! Another LeVar Burton-inspired entry tomorrow,

Ben
PS. Four links to start with:

1)      Three songs (with a bit of context) from Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3fFXIUXZ-M

2)      Full text of Uncle Remus: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2306/pg2306.html

3)      Full text of Nights: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26429/26429-h/26429-h.htm

4)      OPEN: I’ll ask again, any authors we should re-read (and on whom maybe I should focus this week)?


Monday, October 17, 2011

October 17, 2011: Finding the Right Plath

On Tuesday my Major American Authors of the 20th Century class begins its two weeks with our fourth author (and second poet after Langston Hughes) of the semester, Sylvia Plath. This’ll be the third time I’ve spent these couple weeks with Plath in a section of this course; I also spent two weeks with her novel The Bell-Jar (1963) in a post-1950 American novel class. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of this post (in which I promised a follow-up on Plath—better late than never!), each time I’ve had the chance to read and study Plath’s work in these settings, I’ve found more—more depth and complexity, but also, and most importantly for my point here, more breadth and variety—in her writing. That might seem to be logical enough, given the benefits of in-depth study of any author, but I believe that my experiences with Plath, and the knowledge and perspective I’ve gained through them, actually and very significantly reveal two ways in which widely accepted, oversimplifying narratives can hinder our analysis and understanding if we’re not careful.

For one thing, there’s Plath’s biography, and more exactly the most famous detail from that biography: her suicide. It is indeed the case that Plath committed suicide at the age of 30, in February, 1963 by turning on her gas stove and sticking her head inside; it’s also the case, as both her confessional and heavily autobiographical poem “Lady Lazarus” and similarly autobiographical work in The Bell-Jar illustrate, that Plath had attempted suicide almost exactly a decade earlier, at the age of 20. So it’s entirely understandable that the narratives about Plath’s suicide—which are, to be clear, also the most prominent narratives about her writing—treat it as a final, unsurprising moment in a consistent psychological and emotional pattern. And that may indeed be a fair assessment, but I’m pretty sure that very few AmericanStudiers or readers of Plath’s works know the details of her life at the time of her suicide: Plath had moved to England to live with her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, but in late 1962 Hughes left her and their two small children for another woman; the winter of 1962-1963 was one of the coldest ever recorded in London, and Plath could not afford to pay for consistent heat in her flat so she and her children were likely damn near frozen by February; her kids were also apparently suffering from the flu and had been for some time; and Plath was trying to write between roughly four and eight every morning, because it was the only time that was genuinely hers and because she needed to publish to earn enough to support her children. These facts do not necessarily elide the long-term psychological causes, nor do they answer the question (as noted in the bio at the first link) of whether Plath hoped or planned to be discovered and saved. But knowledge of them does, I hope, make it impossible to treat Plath’s suicide as just the act of a crazy or self-centered and –pitying person.
And for another thing, there are the poems. The Collected Poems, compiled by Hughes over the two decades after Plath’s death and published in one volume in late 1981, is most impressive for both the sheer number of poems it includes (224, all written between 1956 and 1962; and another fifty drawn from the many more she wrote prior to 1956) and for the variety and breadth of those poems (even those from the same year, and often from within a day or two of one another, are generally strikingly distinct in structure, style, imagery, and theme). I could point to a particular poem or two to make my case, but thanks to the magic of the web I don’t have to—just go to the “Browse Inside” version of the book at the second link and sample a few pages from anywhere in the volume (other than the eleven pages devoted to Plath’s longest single poem, “Three Women”). The poems of Plath’s that get anthologized and taught most frequently (including by me in my second-half American lit survey) are “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” both produced in her final months of writing and collected in the posthumous Ariel (1966); each is well worth reading and analyzing, but that standard pairing and focus are in some ways hugely limiting to our sense of Plath, both as a poet (both poems over-use Nazi/Holocaust imagery) and as a person (both lend credence to the whole “depressed and fixated on death” narrative). To me, what the Collected Poems proves is that Plath was a prodigious talent, one of 20th century America’s most versatile and best poets—that is of course an opinion, but it’s a much better-supported one thanks to the book; and those narratives that seek to dismiss her talent, just like those that seek to oversimplify her suicide, had at least better be prepared to engage with the evidence.

That, ultimately, is the only broad point I’m trying to make here, but it’s a pretty key one. Sweeping narratives aren’t necessarily a problem, and perhaps are inevitable—I’m guilty of constructing plenty of ‘em I know—, but far too often they exist in spite of, rather than in conversation with, the available evidence. So at least we AmericanStudiers owe it our subjects, our audiences, and ourselves to read and engage with that evidence as best we can before we deploy, endorse, or even revise the narratives. More tomorrow,
Ben

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A pretty detailed bio of Plath, by the author of one of the best biographical works on her: http://www.sylviaplath.info/biography.html

2)      The Harper Collins “Browse Inside” feature: http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061558894

3)      OPEN: Any authors or artists about whom our narratives are too simplistic?


Saturday, October 15, 2011

October 15-16, 2011: Information, Please

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, one of my main ongoing gigs these days is as a scholar-advisor to the American Writers Museum, and specifically to the museum’s NEH proposal for a traveling exhibition; that means that one of my main jobs for the next month or so is to produce a revised narrative for that proposal and exhibition, which are now focused on contemporary/21st century immigrant American writers. Of course I have some ideas about writers on whom we could focus, and I’ve been able to recruit a number of exceptional scholars who are likely to have even better and more interesting such ideas. But since I believe writing and thinking go best, especially at the early stages, when they’re as communal as possible, and since my readers here are clearly among the most discerning AmericanStudiers out there, I wanted to ask for your input as well.

So I ask you: are there contemporary (read: 1990s to the present) immigrant writers—which doesn’t have to mean first generation necessarily, but probably first or second generation, meaning either the writer or his or her parents immigrated; although somebody whose immigrant roots go back further but who writes about questions of immigration and identity in central ways could work too—you think are worth our collective awareness, attention, response? I’d love to hear your thoughts on folks whose works or styles, themes or voices, or for other reasons stand out for you, and would be great possible focal points for this traveling exhibition and the audiences we hope to bring to it (in at least a handful of cities around the country, from mainstays like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to newer urban hubs like Austin and Miami). Feel free to mention writers in comments here, or if you’d prefer you can email me suggestions at brailton@fitchburgstate.edu. I promise we’ll seriously consider any and all suggestions!
Thanks, more next week,
Ben

Friday, October 14, 2011

October 14, 2011: Gilded Age Addendum

In calling the robber baron image and the Gospel of Wealth concept the two most prominent narratives attached to Gilded Age magnates, I left out a third, equally significant such narrative: the self-made man. While the narrative had been present in American culture since at least Ben Franklin’s self-definitions and national image, and had gained a great deal of steam with the narratives about both Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln in the mid-19th century, there’s no question that it was in the Gilded Age that its status as one of our defining American narratives was truly cemented; that cementing was due in significant measure to the phenomenally popular novels of Horatio Alger, whose nearly identical protagonists were all variations of the self-made man narrative, but likewise found consistent validation in the accounts (both autobiographical and from outside views/stories) of the self-making through which the Gilded Age magnates had risen to their high status.

There’s a lot of AmericanStudies work to be done (and that has been done) on the self-made man narrative, but I mention it here because of one of its principal roles: in making extreme wealth palatable, and even attractive and noble, to the mass of Americans who do not and are likely never going to possess it. It often mystifies me how a reprehensible, sleazy, multiple-bankruptcy-suffering fool like Donald Trump can become an icon and idol; but my mystification is due in part to my knowledge of how Trump gained the vast majority of his fortune: the way many of the wealthiest Americans (such as current presidential candidate Mitt Romney) do, by inheriting it. The national narratives about men like Trump and Romney, on the other hand, emphasize their resumes, their business savvy, their self-making—thus making these obscenely wealthy figures into both impressive models and, at least implicitly, examples that could be followed in our own paths to obscene wealth.
Journalist and political writer Thomas Frank famously asked, in regard to the question of why working class Americans so often seem to vote against their own self-interest and in favor of the interests of the wealthy, What’s the Matter with Kansas? I read today a daily email from the TeaParty.org official site—a New England ASA email account receives those daily emails, and the AmericanStudier in me is obligated to read them, even at the risk of nausea and vomiting—in which that ostensibly working-class, populist organization similarly went to great lengths to defend the nation’s richest 1% against the Occupy Wall Street movement. My first reaction in reading the email was quite similar to Frank’s; my second was to remember the big money groups and individuals (like the Koch Brothers) that have funded many of the Tea Party’s efforts. But my third was to recall the role of the self-made man narrative in the Gilded Age, and down to our contemporary moment—to make us admire and aspire to be precisely those Americans who are, in many ways, making the national dreams of financial success or even stability more difficult for many of their fellow countrymen to attain.

More this weekend,
Ben

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The Gilded Age’s only two-term president, Grover Cleveland, does his part to build the self-made man narrative: http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/magic/news/cleveland.html

2)       Info on Frank’s book: http://tcfrank.com/books/whats-the-matter-with-kansas/

3)      OPEN: What do you think?