MyAmericanFuture

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Friday, August 31, 2012

August 31, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, Grad School

[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On a book that reminds me how excitingly far I still have to go.
From the names for the degrees—Master of Arts, Doctor of Philosophy—to the purpose of the PhD dissertation (and its accompanying oral “defense”), and certainly through the last few decades’ evolving emphasis on hyper-specialization within academia, the demonstrated purpose of grad school (at least in English and the humanities; this may be less true for the sciences) would seem to be to achieve a significant level of mastery over one’s particular subject and focus. There’s obviously good reason for that, especially since graduate students are professors in training and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a professor to have some significant mastery of his or her field (particularly in an era when students and their families are paying so much to be educated by those professors). But at the same time, this perspective on grad school can make it seem like the key to being a successful scholar is to have all the answers, to know just how you would analyze any given text or event or question, to never admit that you don’t know or are still trying to figure out what to make of something.
If I were ever tempted to feel that way—although of course I’m far too humble, not to mention talented and good-looking, to do so—I had the good fortune during grad school to encounter plenty of correctives, in the form of works that left me at a loss and forced me to recognize how much American Studying is a lifelong learning kind of pursuit. At the top of that list would have to be Nathanael West’s novella The Day of the Locust (1939), a work that within its 150 pages manages to be a bildungsroman about a young arrival to Los Angeles, a funny and biting satire of Hollywood, a gritty socially realistic novel of the Depression, a psychological study of gender and sex, and an apocalyptic cautionary tale in which religion, celebrity, popular culture, and violence yield the titular plague—among other things. In the conclusion to my weekly analytical post about the novel in the grad class where I first encountered it, I was simply left reciting the eternal question, voiced so eloquently by Marvin Gaye and slightly less eloquently by the Four Non-Blondes: “What’s going on?” Can’t say I have any more definitive of an answer today than I did then.
Does that mean I should have failed my defense, been laughed out of grad school, am now outing myself as the phoniest American Studier this side of David Barton? I don’t think so. First of all, I’m not giving up on analyzing West’s novel—quite the opposite, I’m excited to keep figuring out what I want to say about it, and in particular to get the chance at some point to teach it and participate in some communal such analyses. Second, and more broadly and importantly still, the day I pretend like I’ve got this whole American Studying thing figured out will be the day you all should reach through your computers and slap some sense into me, Cher in Moonstruck style. Both American Studies and public American Studies scholarship are, it seems to me, not about having all the answers—they’re about learning as much as we can to be sure, from our sources and our texts and our histories but also from each other; and then about continuing to ask the questions that allow us all to keep learning, to build a communal perspective on our national identity and history, culture and community, that are as complex and evolving as America itself. Works like West’s have helped me to do that for sure, and I’m very appreciative.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance ahead of that post—thoughts? Books that shaped you?
8/31 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two hugely impressive and inspiring 19th century Americans, Ely Parker and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

August 30, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, College

[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the book that helped open my eyes to a new career opportunity.
One of this blog’s most overarching threads—indeed one of its central purposes, but also one I have explicitly discussed on multiple occasions—has been my evolving perspectives on and goals for a career in public scholarship. To some degree this is a new-ish development in my thinking, and one I could trace to the shift from my first book (which was based on my dissertation and as such constructed almost entirely for an academic audience) to my second (which I hoped, and still hope, could interest American Studiers outside the academy just as much if not more as those inside; check it out and see for yourself, wherever you are!). Yet as I’ve made this shift in my thinking, I’ve been greatly helped by the many strong examples of public American Studies scholarship I’ve encountered throughout my life—and one that particularly stands out is Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (1994).
I read Johnson and Wilentz’s book as a freshman in college, in a History and Literature (America) sophomore tutorial that included a ton of great scholarly works: John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, Christine Stansell’s City of Women, and David Hollinger’s Post-Ethnic America, to cite only three. Yet The Kingdom of Matthias stood out, as it’s able to combine some of the strongest features of each of those exemplary works: it’s a narrative history every bit as compelling as Demos’, is grounded in as extensive and thorough research and citation as Stansell’s, and feels as relevant to big American questions and narratives as Hollinger’s (particularly when Johnson and Wilentz get to their climactic reveal about Sojourner Truth, about which I’ve blogged previously). This is a book that reads quickly and compellingly while introducing its audiences to a great deal of specific sources and history, that does justice to a bygone era and subject while feeling fresh and relevant to our contemporary moment, and that highlights a far-too forgotten set of American histories and identities without feeling the slightest bit didactic or antiquarian.
Books are only part of the future of public American Studies scholarship, of course; as might be obvious, I’m also a big fan of blogs, websites, conferences and colloquia, and many other ways American Studiers can connect and converse about these key questions. But the truth is that what makes a great public scholarly book great parallels very directly what produces the best of all those other forms of scholarship; that means all those things in the last paragraph’s closing sentence, but it also and most directly means this: that it be unique, based on meaningful research and knowledge and analysis, and able to connect to other American Studiers and what’s important to them. Content that’s worth our time; authors with something genuine to contribute; an awareness of audience and ability to connect to those audiences. Might seem like a simple enough equation, but getting it right, well, that’s the trick (and one I’m most definitely still working toward). To my mind, Johnson and Wilentz got it exactly right—even if it took me a few years to really appreciate that college lesson.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!
8/30 Memory Day nominee: Roy Wilkins, the Civil Rights and NAACP leader whose editorial, political, social, and legal efforts contributed as much as any American to some of the 20th century’s most important achievements.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

August 29, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, High School

[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On one of the books that greatly expanded my sense of what literature can be and do.
It’s not at the top of the list of the reasons why Mr. Heartwell was my favorite and most influential English teacher, but it sure didn’t hurt: he had a large and full bookshelf at the corner of his room from which students were welcome to pick out and borrow any books they wanted. Both of my parents had bookshelves like that too—I’m pretty sure I first encountered David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), also in high school, by pulling it off of a shelf of my Mom’s—but there’s something about a totally unexplored shelf, you know? A whole new frontier, waiting for this budding literary pioneer to follow his own Oregon Trail and find untapped rivers of gold from which to—okay, shelving the metaphor. In any case, it was a great resource, and one of the books I pulled from that shelf that made a significant impression was Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967).
By this time I had encountered plenty of stylistically innovative and experimental authors and works, but there was still something about Brautigan’s book that, to quote Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, made me “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into and not much more of an idea what to make of it once I did—per the above link, one of Brautigan’s rejections from a publisher remarked with confusion that “I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing,” and I know how he or she felt—but I know that there was something compelling, irresistible even, about that state of reading. As with many experimental texts, it’s difficult to describe adequately or sufficiently the book’s style and voice; but this short sample chapter, “A Walden Pond for Winos,” is a good place to start. The mix of realism and poetry (or at least a poetic sentiment); the dark humor and yet shared humanity; the balance of the narrator’s individual voice and a more communal set of experiences and identities; the fact that the chapter has precious little to do with trout fishing, or even with those that come before and after it, demanding that we create a sense of structure ourselves since he’s damend if he’s going to do it for us—all key elements to Brautigan’s style and novel.
I don’t want to misrepresent my relationship to Brautigan’s novel—I haven’t touched it since that high school reading, and have thought more about it in the time I’ve been writing this post than I had in most of those intervening years—but the fact remains that when I was brainstorming which high school-era book to highlight, it was the first one that came to mind. And the reason, again, is quite simple but very significant: it wasn’t like anything else I had read. I was a pretty well-read kid, across many different genres and eras and traditions—but I was still a high school kid, and as such had that delightful teenage combination of ignorance and yet a certainty that I knew what was what. Brautigan’s was one of the books that reminded me how much I had yet to experience and learn, how much more than was in heaven and earth than I had dreamt of in my philosophy (we read Hamlet that year too). A pretty valuable lesson, and one that has helped carry me forward into can American Studier’s life of continual learning and growth.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!
8/29 Memory Day nominee: Temple Grandin, the doctor and professor of animal science who is also and most significantly one of autism’s most vocal and inspiring advocates  and voices.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

August 28, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, Young Adult

[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the book that helped push me out of my comfort zone, both as a reader and as a thinker.
In yesterday’s post I highlighted what I would call the first genuine stage in this American Studier’s evolution as a reader: finding those books that first spoke to me and shaped me in individual, specific, and enduring ways. It’s fair to say that they did so in part because they connected to nascent interests and passions that would remain central to my identity and perspective throughout my life—in the fantastic and related literary genres, in the case of David and the Phoenix; in mystery fiction, in the case of the Hardy Boys. That is, while those books certainly helped shape those particular interests as well as my overall identity, they did so in relatively comfortable ways; while such comfort is not at all a bad thing, and is probably necessary to making those initial connections with stories and books, I firmly believe it can and should be supplemented by some discomfort, by those works that compel us in part because they push us beyond the bounds of what we instinctively enjoy (while still entertaining and enriching us, that is—I’m not advocating for masochistic reading!).
For me, one of the first works to push me in that way was John Bellairs’ The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984). One of the early works in Bellairs’ Johnny Dixon series, Spell certainly shared some key features with both David and the Hardy Boys—a youthful protagonist who finds himself involved in a supernatural and mysterious situation—but with a couple of very significant differences, both captured by the book’s cover: that protagonist, Johnny, confronted the book’s villains and terrors on his own, both because of his status as an orphan and because the story’s plot involved his mentor figure going missing; and those threats were indeed terrifying, far more scary to this young adult reader than either the scientist villain in David or any of the Hardy’s antagonists. Spell kept me up at night in distinctly different ways than did those earlier books, which I simply wanted to keep reading into the wee hours; I felt somewhat the same about Bellairs’ book, but also didn’t want to stop reading because that would entail turning off the light and wondering if the Sorcerer’s Skull was lurking in the shadows in the corner of my room. That fear, it’s worth adding, paralleled very fully Johnny’s own emotions, making his journey mine in a way that was also distinct from my connections to the protagonists of my other early favorites.
That kind of empathetic connection is certainly one reason why Bellairs’ book impacted me the way it did, and why I’m highlighting it in a post in this series. But I’d still emphasize even more fully the effects of reading something that made me distinctly uncomfortable—not, again, in a painful way, but in terms of being unsettled, of experiencing unfamiliar sensations, of  feeling emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually challenged by what I was reading. It’s certainly fair to say that such discomfort shouldn’t be our most central association with reading or with art in general—living in the world produces enough discomfort without consistently seeking it out in our artistic experiences! But it’s equally fair to say that our perspectives can’t grow and expand if we’re always comfortable, and that being challenged and pushed beyond what we have known and what we instinctively enjoy is one important and valuable way to become a more rounded and successful person within that world, within our communities, and in our own skin. Johnny Dixon and John Bellairs helped me do that from a young age, and despite—no, in conjunction with—those late-night shivers, I’ll always be grateful.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!
8/28 Memory Day nominee: Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be sanctified by the Catholic Church, and a woman whose educational and social efforts on behalf of American women and the poor should be inspiring regardless of one’s faith or spiritual perspective.

Monday, August 27, 2012

August 27, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, Childhood

[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On one of the books that most powerfully sparked my young imagination.
In my experience, there are a couple of fundamental truths about young kids and books: all young kids like listening to books (says something about the power of words, images, and stories, I’d say); and young kids don’t tend to be very picky about the quality of those books (ditto, I suppose; but also something about how taste evolves). I won’t name names, as this is supposed to be a positive series, but I have found that in these early years my boys have enjoyed the worst books I’ve ever read them nearly as much as they have Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss, the Elephant and Piggie series, and so on. Which makes me that much more excited to see which books start to speak to them more individually and meaningfully, which ones begin to take hold of their imaginations not just because they create stories out of words and pictures on a page (again, a magical thing no matter what), but because of some of the specific effects and meanings contained within their particular words (and possibly images, although I’m thinking especially of slightly older, non-picture books).
I think Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix (1957) might have been the first book to do that for me, but since I’ve blogged about it before, I’ll focus here on another, even more lastingly influential (for me) work. Or rather many such works—because when my Dad and I had finished reading more or less all of the 30-odd books in “Franklin W. Dixon’s” (a pseudonym for multiple ghost-writers) Hardy Boys series, I was old enough to move on by myself to the late 1980s series reboot and tackle most of those numerous contemporary, teen-oriented updates as well. All told, I must have spent tens of thousands of pages solving mysteries alongside Frank and Joe Hardy (as well as their parents, peppery Aunt Gertrude, food-loving Chet, and the other recurring characters). But while most of those pages have blurred together rather thoroughly (partly because of the similarly recurring phrases and tropes, such Gertrude’s peppery nature; partly because I’m getting old), I can still remember quite vividly how taken I was by the first volume in the original series, The Tower Treasure 
There are lots of reasons why the Hardy’s first adventure spoke to me so vividly: it was one of the first mystery stories I had encountered, with all the pleasures of uncertainty and fear and yet detection and resolution that the genre presents; it featured likeable young boys acting like, well, recognizable young boys yet having wondrous and meaningful adventures; the cover picture was just plain amazing (the image thing never entirely goes away). But I would say that one particularly potent reason aligns the Hardy series with David and the Phoenix very interestingly: both are clearly set in the world of reality, with both communities and villainous forces that are very much of that world; yet both suggest the possibility that their heroes can step outside of the norms of that world in order to make it better. They do so of course in dramatically different ways—David by befriending and helping preserve a host of mythological creatures, the Hardy Boys by solving a seemingly supernatural yet ultimately all-too-real mystery and saving the day—but nonetheless, in each case the protagonists both confront the realities around them and refuse to be limited by them, creating and living their own stories within those worlds. Pretty evocative and enduring lesson for this American Studier.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

August 25-26, 2012: Crowd-Sourcing Bad Memories

[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I have examined five such dark histories and highlighted a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. This crowd-sourced post is drawn out of the responses of other American Studiers to those posts and this topic—please add your thoughts below!]
Responding to Monday’s post, two fellow American Studiers suggest Benjamin Ray’s Salem Witch Trials “documentary archive and transcription project.”
And Rob Gosselin writes that “When I think of the Salem Witch Trials I think of Giles Corey. An old man crushed to death under a board and pile of stones. His only crime apparently was to defend his wife from a charge of witchcraft. From what I have read he offered no defense at trial. It is not much of an intellectual leap to move forward three hundred years or so to the modern experience of the United States water boarding Muslim prisoners held under military custody. Torture is never acceptable. It is a crime often supported by the desperate and erroneous excuses of people infected with irrational fear.”
Responding to Tuesday’s post, Matt Goguen notes that “Aaron Huey gave a TED talk about photographing poverty at the Pine Ridge Reservation and some of his photos are featured in a recent issue of National Geographic. Along with it is a discussion of the AIM's efforts in the past thirty years.” Matt also nominates the Tuskegee syphilis study as another particularly egregious bad American memory.
Monica Jackson argues that “People seem to think that because the horrible things that happened were so long ago, everyone should have gotten over everything by now. But, as Lisa Ling pointed out in her documentary Our America: Life on the Rez, no one has considered that the reservations were never really rebuilt. Just like when we go to war in another country, our military must stay there to help rebuild the country because of the damage that we've caused. Unfortunately, although we do this for others to make our country look good, we don't do it for ourselves. Therefore, even though Wounded Knee happened so long ago, the aftermath is still very real. There are many Natives who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, the more severe effects of diabetes (gangrene and amputated limbs) and cancer. There are really high numbers of teen suicides each year and it's because a lot of things happen on the reservation that no one ever hears about. There was a magazine called Jane and they once had an article about high profile cases. Two Caucasian girls were kidnapped and there was a huge media frenzy over them. At the exact same time, on one of the reservations, two Native teenage girls were murdered, the family knew who killed them, but the killer only spent 30 days in jail, no media attention was given to them. There is a lot of abuse that happens on the reservation, but the justice system does not work the same at all. It's almost like living in a different country right here in the U.S. The most effective way to bring attention to the Natives is through the media, but it would really be great if Native Americans suddenly had an arts & literature movement (like the Harlem Renaissance) where a lot of writers and artists would suddenly emerge. But, they need teachers to help them with that.”
Emily Hegarty writes, “Last year, I was horrified when white students in a Native American literature course argued that the Wounded Knee Massacre was a justifiable act of war. They specifically argued that the 7th Cavalry was not to blame as they must have been suffering from PTSD after fighting so many Indians. Their arguments were based on their belief that it is always wrong to criticize the U.S. military during a time of war. In their minds, this policy applies equally to all wars throughout history. It was a disturbing class discussion.”
Jeff Renye adds that “Thunderheart, which I first saw with the author of this blog, pairs very nicely with one of the documentary films in the PBS series We Shall Remain. You can view this film, about the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, in its entirety and access its transcript at this site.
 
One of the important values of work like Ben Railton’s is showing in actuality, from a variety of narrative perspectives and sources, how the American past does find some form of life in the present. To find, recognize, share, and understand these stories with one another carries an implicit hope that to do so will make for better citizens and a better country to call home.

His work continually illustrates that moment in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In addition, we’re asked to consider what T. S. Eliot states in the last part of his poem cycle Four Quartets: “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time. For history is a pattern.”

Another good source to start from for more-recent condition in Pine Ridge and the lives of the Lakota is the photo-essay “Ghosts of Wounded Knee,” Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 2009, Matthew Power and Aaron Huey. Full text with original photographs can be viewed here.”

And in response to Friday’s post, Jeff highlights “the sampan scene from Apocalypse Now.” Rob Gosselin argues that it’s “edelic and chaotic as Hollywood likes to portray it. I know a lot of men who where there, and none

 
appropriate to mention Apocalypse Now on Howard Zinn Day. That was a movie, in a series of movies, that helped define how people remember The Vietnam War. It was a war with atrocities committed on both sides, but it was not as totally psychedelic and chaotic as Hollywood likes to portray it. I know a lot of men who where there, and none have mentioned anything familiar in Apocalypse Now, The Deerhunter, or Full Metal Jacket. One particular friend, a retired marine, told me that if you want to see Vietnam how he remembers it watch the movie Hamburger Hill. It shows the disorganization, chaos and futility of the war much more accurately than any of the Hollywood blockbusters. Yet when people discuss the war in a historical perspective bombastic popular culture quickly rises to the level of fact. It was a horrible war, and Life magazine had images of soldiers burning villages. And who can forget the photos of children, burned by American napalm running down the street. But as far as I can tell there were no feudal warlords or prison camps where prisoners were forced to play Russian roulette. Hollywood had to add psychotic to the horrific just to make the Vietnam experience more palatable to American audiences convinced that the war was nothing but a series of bizarre drug trips and crazy generals. It wasn't. It was imperialistic war, with all of its horrible consequences. As Americans we never wanted to believe that. The only difference was this time it was televised.” For Jeff and Rob’s further discussion, see this thread.
Next series next week,
Ben
PS. Add your thoughts please!
8/25 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two supremely talented and pioneering 20th century icons, composer Leonard Bernstein and tennis great Althea Gibson.
8/26 Memory Day nominee: Lee DeForest, the scientist and inventor without whose contributions the worlds of radio, television, and film would sound very different—if they sounded at all.

Friday, August 24, 2012

August 24, 2012: Bad Memories, Part Five

[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
On three complex, flawed, and powerful engagements with one of our more recent and more troubling dark histories.
While only one of my week’s focal histories, the Japanese internment, has produced an official governmental apology (and accompanying financial settlement), it’s fair to say that remorse and regret are two of the central emotions which all of these memories elicit (or would elicit if they were better remembered) from most Americans. Yet it’s still pretty rare for one of the principal actors in a dark and destructive event to offer his own public apology for that history, and thus to force us to engage communally with such emotions and perspectives. And that’s exactly what Lieutenant William Calley did in August of 2009, during a speech at a Columbus, GA Kiwanis club: apologize for his role more than forty-one years earlier in the Vietnam War’s controversial and infamous My Lai Massacre. The apology, which seems (particularly given the setting) to have been impromptu and thus entirely genuine, no more erases the massacre than the reparations did the Japanese internment—as the My Lai prosecutor put it upon hearing the news, “It’s hard to apologize for murdering so many people”—but it does provide a belated yet still meaningful model for an open engagement with the worst of what American history includes.
For the last few decades, long before Calley’s apology, prominent American artists have created their own such engagements with My Lai, or at least with fictionalized versions of such massacres. Two very different 1980s films offer interestingly parallel portrayals: Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) makes a My Lai-like village massacre the center of the conflict between its pair of deeply symbolic leaders, Willem Defoe’s angelic Elias and Tom Berenger’s devilish Barnes, with Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor nearly giving into Berenger’s demands to participate in the massacre but ultimately siding with Elias’s resistance to it; while Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989) focuses on a much more intimate yet similar moral conflict, between Michael J. Fox’s idealistic Eriksson and Sean Penn’s cynical Meserve over whether they should rape and murder a captured Vietnamese woman. There’s at least one significant difference, however: in Stone’s film the massacre becomes one scene among many charting the men’s conflict and Taylor’s trajectory, and could thus be forgotten or minimized by an audience; whereas in DePalma’s film the debate over the Vietnamese prisoners forms the movie’s heart, and lingers into and beyond the complex final homecoming scene. Given the controversial and uncertain nature of both My Lai itself and the Vietnam War in general, it’s fair to say that each effect has its place in our engagement with them.
And then there’s Tim O’Brien. The Vietnam War’s undisputed chief literary chronicler literature locates a My Lai-like massacre, or rather his protagonist’s post-war relationship to and memories of that event, at the ambiguous center of his most mysterious (in every sense) novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994). It’s possible to argue that those ambiguities and mysteries make the massacre similarly uncertain, reflecting that side of My Lai’s presence in our national narratives; it’s also possible to argue that the massacre represents the novel’s sole and central certainty, reflecting how much My Lai has come to define Vietnam and its aftermath. The strongest analysis of O’Brien’s novel would probably argue for both sides—his book, after all, is both a mystery novel (which demands a certain answer to key questions of death, causation, and so on) and a postmodern novel (which resists any such certainty and portrays the many sides and versions of any story and history). And so it is with our darkest histories as well, of course—their existence and presence and role are unquestionable and vital; but how we remember them, what stories we tell of them, what they continue to mean for our future identity and community, are open and evolving and contested and crucial questions.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance to add your thoughts for that post—responses to the week’s posts, other bad memories to highlight, different perspectives on these questions, and more.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

August 23, 2012: Bad Memories, Part Four

[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
How works from three different genres can help us remember a shameful period in our history.
Compared to the other bad memories I’ve highlighted in this space, it might seem like we’ve done all right as a nation by the World War II history of anti-Japanese discrimination and internment. After all, at the urging of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), the federal government agreed in the late 1980s to pay out $20,000 in reparations to each survivor of the internment, an explicit and striking attempt to right an acknowledged wrong. Yet reparations don’t necessarily equate with remembrance, and I believe we still have a long way to go in remembering, engaging with, and including in our national narratives the experiences of those interned Japanese Americans. The most direct way to do so, of course, is to hear their voices and perspectives, such as by reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir (co-authored with her husband James D. Houston) Farewell to Manzanar (1973). In direct and unsparing prose, Houston documents just what the internment experience meant for a nine year old girl and her family; such personal perspectives are vital if we’re to get inside the internment experience, I would argue.
Houston published her memoir thirty years after the internment, however, and so the text, important and compelling as it is, can’t be accurately described as immediate; as with any autobiographical work, it’s a constructed reflection on the experiences it portrays. Fortunately, it can be complemented very directly by another set of works connected to Manzanar—pioneering photographer Ansel Adams’s more than 200 photographs taken at the camp in 1943. As that Library of Congress exhibition powerfully illustrates, Adams’s photographs covered a huge range of internment details: from the identities of individuals and families to work, leisure, and other activities, and with (unsurprisingly for Adams, best known for his nature photographs) plenty of representations of the place, setting, and community itself in the mix as well. Photographs, especially ones taken by a talented artist like Adams, are not direct reflections of reality either, of course—but these 1943 shots certainly provide a window into that moment and place, the setting for Houston’s memories and a representative internment space to be sure.
If the photographs are in at least some key ways pretty close to the internment moment, at the other end of the spectrum we’d find David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. Written by a European American born more than a decade after the end of World War II, narrated by another (fictional) European American man (and a veteran of the war’s Pacific battles at that), and focusing at least as much on a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a love triangle as on flashbacks to two pivotal characters’ internment experiences, Snow can certainly not be placed on the short list of vital internment documents. Yet I would argue (somewhat vaguely, so as not to spoil the novel’s resolutions) that Guterson locates those internment experiences, and their immediate and lingering, individual and communal effects and meanings, at the heart of each of his novel’s plotlines, making his book a historical novel in the truest sense of the phrase: a fiction about history’s power and presence, about the worst of what it can include and (again, trying not to spoil!) some of the best ways we can remember and respond to those memories.
All texts that can help us better remember the internment! Final post of mine in the series tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Suggestions for other bad American memories?
8/23 Memory Day nominee: Clifford Geertz, the pioneering cultural anthropologist who brought literary, psychological, and sociological insights to the field, and profoundly influenced our understandings of society, religion, community, and ourselves.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

August 22, 2012: Bad Memories, Part Three

[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
On the innovative and impressive lengths to which writers will go to capture one of our most horrific histories.
I know this is a strange way to start a post, but I can still remember how impressed I was when Alex Haley stripped down to his underwear. Toward the end of Haley’s Roots (1976), the author details his painstakingly thorough research into the life of his slave ancestors, and particularly into the book’s main protagonist, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped into slavery in Africa and brought to the Americas as part of the Middle Passage. In an effort to get slightly closer to the experience of that horrific journey, Haley stripped down and climbed into the crowded hold of a freight ship, imagining himself in his tiny space surrounded by a sea of enchained, enfeebled, sick and death-ridden and terrified fellow slaves, not knowing whether he would survive nor where he was headed if he did. As Haley freely admits, the act might seem silly, both literally and in its distance from the Middle Passage itself—but it also symbolizes nicely Haley’s willingness to do whatever he could to imagine himself back into his family’s, people’s, and our national past; a willingness that certainly resulted in a highly detailed and hugely compelling work of autobiographical and historical fiction.
It’s difficult to imagine getting any closer to the details and specifics of the Middle Passage than did Haley, in his own action and in the resulting section of the book. But details and specifics are only part of a historical event, of course, and not necessarily the most evocative or significant part. And other American authors have made equally interesting stylistic choices in an attempt to capture other, more ephemeral but no less meaningful sides to the Middle Passage. Robert Hayden’s dense and demanding poem “Middle Passage” (1962), for example, utilizes numerous and varied formal elements to capture the passage’s many voices and identities: direct quotes from journals and letters (written by not only slaves but also slavers, other sailors, and more); the Biblical names of slave ships juxtaposed with passages from Scripture; an extended quote from Shakespeare that echoes many of the passage’s themes; Hayden’s own highly poetic and evocative language and descriptions. The poem does not, to my mind, capture much at all (nor does Hayden intend to) the experience or emotions for any one slave—but it portrays the whole communal experience with deep and real power, and contextualizes it in a longer literary, cultural, and human history at the same time. Certainly both of those effects are likewise key to remembering the Middle Passage.
Yet so too is that individual side, and while Haley’s book does a great job conveying all the details of what an individual slave might have experienced, I don’t know that his journalistic style is quite able to capture the emotions and effects of those experiences. For that, I’d highlight a brief but crucial section of one of the most prominent American historical novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Beloved is about the whole of slavery, among many other weighty American themes, but in one particularly complex, dazzling, and important passage Morrison makes it very specifically about the Middle Passage; the passage, which represents the only section in which Morrison uses her stream of consciousness style to portray the perspective of the ghostly title character during her experiences after being killed and before coming back to life (spoilers, sorry!), locates that character on the Middle Passage, even though neither she nor any of the novel’s other characters actually experienced the journey. There are thematic and historical effects to that choice, making clear how much the passage served as a formative and foundational experience for—a ghost that haunted, if you will—all that followed in slavery, for African Americans, for America, and so on. Yet Morrison’s hugely compelling stream of consciousness style also simply captures the passage, the feel and emotions and moments of it, in a way that neither of those other talented authors quite accomplishes for me.
Individually, three very significant works; taken together, a great start to imagining our way into this horrific and vital American history. Next one tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Suggestions for other bad American memories?
8/22 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very different but equally unique, talented, and just plain entertaining 20th century writers, Dorothy Parker and Ray Bradbury.