MyAmericanFuture

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Monday, February 25, 2013

February 25-28, 2013: The Even Bigger Read Still Needs You!

[Last week’s conference-inspired series got me thinking about my next conference, the Northeast MLA (NeMLA) convention in Boston (the weekend of March 21-24). I’ll be doing a few different things there, including starting a term as Second Vice President and giving a paper on José Antonio Vargas and the Tuscon Mexican American Studies protests. But it’s this roundtable I’m chairing for which I’d love your input!]
I’ll paste below the description of my NeMLA Roundtable, “The Even Bigger Read: Making American Literature National.” I’ve got six great participants who will share their nominations for one book all Americans should read at the same time (a la the more regional current Big Read program), along with one audience member who has interviewed the founder of the Big Read and will share his thoughts. But I hope that the question and answer session can include lots of other nominations and discussion—not only from the audience present at the roundtable, but from you all as well! So please share any and all nominations for a national Big Read, and I’ll be sure to bring your ideas to the roundtable (and credit you accordingly!).
The description:
“The Even Bigger Read: Making American Literature National
For those of us who care about making American literature more public, more connected to all Americans and their experiences, identities, and perspectives, the NEA’s Big Read program represents a great model for such efforts. Since its pilot project in 2006, The Big Read has brought a number of great, complex, vital works of American literature to local communities and schools, getting lots of Americans reading and engaging with those works in the process. Yet the program is explicitly local, with different communities reading different books—there are both practical and philosophical arguments in support of that local element, but it does leave room for a more genuinely shared, national engagement with American literature.
In this roundtable session, I’ll take nominations for a nationwide Big Read—books (in any genre) that should be read and engaged with by all Americans. We’ll talk not only about why, about what makes these works so vital and broadly significant, but about the effects, of what in our public conversations, narratives, communities, identities, histories, and stories would change if we read these books as a nation. We’ll also take suggestions and ideas from the audience.
This conversation can help us not only further define American literature and culture, as we collectively understand them, but also envision our own roles and purposes as public scholars of American literature and identity. And since I’m an advisor for the in-development American Writers Museum, I’ll also bring these ideas to that institution, to help shape how it reflects our most shared and significant literary works.”
So what do you think? What book should all Americans read at once? Nominate below, and I’ll bring your ideas to Boston in March!
February recap on Friday,
Ben
PS. You know what to do!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

February 23-24, 2013: Crowd-sourced AmericanStudiers to Watch

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ve highlighted some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. These crowd-sourced suggestions are drawn from other, equally impressive AmericanStudiers—and I am sure there are plenty more folks to highlight, so add your thoughts, please!]
Monica Jackson follows up my thoughts on Nicholas Syrett’s talk on child brides by noting that his subject, “reminded me of a book I've been meaning to read. The book is called I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. It is a biography of a young girl in Yemen. I'm sure you've heard of it. After working with kids, it's hard to read or hear about the things that some kids go through, but it is important to become aware of these things so that change can happen (as it did for Nujood).”
My fellow New England AmericanStudier Aaron Lecklider has just published his first book, which looks like a wonderful AmericanStudies project and one I can’t wait to read.
Also, I’d like to highlight the work of blog reader and fellow blogger and AmericanStudier Thomas Basboll, someone from whom I think we’ll be hearing a lot more in the years to come.
Finally, I’d like to remind you that all the posts categorized under the heading “Scholarly Reviews” feature other AmericanStudiers to watch, read, and think about!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. AmericanStudies scholars, projects, websites, or work you’d highlight? Share ‘em please!

Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22, 2013: AmericanStudiers to Watch, Part Five

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ll be briefly highlighting some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. Would love to hear your suggestions for other AmericanStudiers to watch, and will compile the ongoing list for the weekend post!]
On three young scholars with whom I was fortunate enough to share a multi-lingual conversation.
At the MLA conference, I gave a talk on a panel organized by the discussion group on Literatures of the U.S. in Languages Other Than English, and its outgoing president Heidi Kim. It was a very positive experience, most especially because of the other three AmericanStudiers on the panel:
1)      Audrey Wu Clark, an Assistant Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, presented on the complex roles of English, Chinese, and hybrid combinations of both in short stories by one of my favorite American authors, Sui Sin Far. Her readings of the individual stories were nuanced and compelling, but she also did a great job framing broader historical, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic contexts for those works and Far’s unique and impressive career.
2)      Osvaldo Oyola, a graduate student in English at SUNY Binghamton, spoke on English, Spanish, Spanglish, Dork, and the many other languages and dialects at the heart of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). As befitting Díaz’s novel, his talk was funny and irreverent, but without losing sight of the significant, complex, and vital themes to which the book and its languages connect. I’m excited to see where he takes his dissertation, of which this talk will be a part.
3)      Melissa Dennihy, a graduate student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, paralleled Osvaldo’s talk (as I did Audrey’s) with a broader engagement with multilingual novels and themes in 21st century American literature. She pointed me to a number of books I need to read—I’m especially interested in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone (1993), with its protagonist who works as a public school translator—but also and more importantly did a great job identifying the stakes of these literary and linguistic questions for our most crucial issues of national identity, community, and future.
Three great talks, and one more reminder why I need to get to more conferences!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So who are some AmericanStudiers to watch whom you’d highlight? Share ‘em for that post please!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 21, 2013: AmericanStudiers to Watch, Part Four

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ll be briefly highlighting some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. Would love to hear your suggestions for other AmericanStudiers to watch, and will compile the ongoing list for the weekend post!]
On the project that exemplifies what digital humanities work can be and do.
January’s MLA conference was full of digital elements and innovations, from the formal launch of the new MLA Commons social media site to numerous panels on the digital humanities, new media, electronic literatures, and more—and, of course, the many Tweets sent from most panels and about the conference overall, and the virtual conversations started (and in some cases still ongoing) as a result. But to my mind, the conference’s most interesting digital aspect was somewhat hidden away: the media art exhibit “Avenues of Access: An Exhibit & Online Archive of New ‘Born Digital’ Literature.” Fortunately, I ventured into the upstairs room that hosted the exhibit; all of its digital works were interesting, but as an AmericanStudier I was especially drawn to The Knotted Line.
It feels silly for me to try to paraphrase or even summarize what creators Evan Bissell and Erik Loyer (and their many collaborators, researchers, and artists) have done there, so I strongly encourage you to click through to their project and explore. The site is strikingly and compellingly designed, which is obviously not at all unimportant when it comes to digital and electronic resources. But I have to admit that what impressed me most, and makes me most excited to find ways to bring the site into my classrooms, is that it has significantly more depth than many digital resources I have encountered. By that I mean partly the quantity and quality of the text components, but also the number of interconnected resources available at each stop on the site’s timeline, the ways in which the site highlights multiple historical and cultural contexts as well as contemporary links for each moment.
Here’s one example, for a moment near and dear to my scholarly heart these days: the site’s page for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The page includes textual information not only about the Act, but about a trio of interestingly interconnected prior and subsequent moments: an 1867 railroad strike; the 1933 formation of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance; and a 2003 political action facilitated by the Chinese Progressive Association. It also includes two visual engagements with the moment and histories, a brief audio recording of a contemporary American reflecting on parallel issues, and a number of other resources and materials to help guide students and scholars to further investigations. The site as a whole in making a compelling AmericanStudies argument, about the links between such histories and our contemporary prison system; but as with any great scholarly work, it also helps those who encounter it find their own ideas and interpretations.
Well worth your time, and a site that represents the cutting edge of great digital humanities work.
Final scholars of the week tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Responses to this project? Other AmericanStudies work or scholars you’d highlight?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February 20, 2013: AmericanStudiers to Watch, Part Three

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ll be briefly highlighting some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. Would love to hear your suggestions for other AmericanStudiers to watch, and will compile the ongoing list for the weekend post!]
On three scholars who have found unique historical approaches to the role that images of childhood and identity play in our national narratives.
The third and final ASA panel I’ll be highlighting here was organized by one of my Twitter-colleagues, Adam Golub, and featured three very complex takes on historical images and uses of childhood in American culture:
1)      Allison Curseen, a graduate student in English and African and African American Studies at Duke, presented a focus literary analysis of the opening chapter of Stephen Crane’s novella The Monster (1898), and specifically its portrayal of play, parenting, and the contrast between the pastoral and progress. She convincingly linked that chapter and text to many other turn of the 20th century contexts, including images of “boyville” and the progressive moment’s emphasis on reconstructing the nation through “play.”
2)      Nicholas Syrett, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado, used the prominent and controversial 1937 case of a 9 year old Tennesse “child bride” (and her 22 year old husband) to think about American narratives of childhood and adulthood, sexuality, gender, and contrasts to foreign, less “civilized” cultures through contemporary works such as Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927). While we can all understand the distaste with a 9 year old’s nuptials, it’s important to understand all of the contexts that inform any single controversy, and he did a great job framing many for this one.
3)      Rebecca Onion, another Twitter colleague and a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Texas, read 1970s stories and pieces in the environmental children’s magazine Ranger Rick, including some by science fiction author George Zebrowski, to discuss the relationships between animality and childhood, apocalyptic environmental messaging, and the Endangered Species Act (1973), among many other compelling connections to this fun but complex pop culture text.
Each of these projects should produce rich and important AmericanStudies scholarship, and I’m excited to see where they go from here!
Next scholars tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Responses to these projects and scholars? Other AmericanStudiers you’d highlight?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

February 19, 2013: AmericanStudiers to Watch, Part Two

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ll be briefly highlighting some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. Would love to hear your suggestions for other AmericanStudiers to watch, and will compile the ongoing list for the weekend post!]
On three scholars whose very distinct interests and projects demonstrate that childhood studies is anything but child’s play.
The second panel I attended at ASA was on race and childhood in American history and culture, and featured three diverse but all equally compelling and significant focal points:
1)      Mary Niall Mitchell, an Associate Professor of History a the University of New Orleans, presented on the complex and amazing American story at the heart of her new book project, currently titled The Real Ida May: Race, Fiction, and Daguerrotypes in a Story of Antislavery. It’s hard to do justice to the many sides and layers to the story of Mary Botts, the “white slave girl” who captured the attention of abolitionists, authors, and many others in antebellum Boston and America—but I’ll be very excited to read Mary’s engagement with them all!
2)      Lara Saguisag, a graduate student in Childhood Studies at Rutgers and also a published children’s book author in her own right, spoke on the complex, cross-cultural, and very American trend of racial “crossdressing” in turn of the 20th century “kid strips” such as the Katzenjammer Kids, Buster Brown, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Her readings of the individual strips were wonderfully nuanced, but she also connected this trend to many other cultural and social contexts, making for an appropriately interdisciplinary AmericanStudies approach and topic for sure.
3)      Philip Nel, Professor of English at Kansas State and one of the leading experts on children’s and young adult literature, gave a talk on a project that he has just begun, focusing on the practice of “whitewashing” in the marketing and cover art of children’s and young adult literature.The trend has ties to numerous complex issues, including publishing and audience, commercialization, and racial stereotyping and discrimination, and his project promises to develop these connections and add to our understanding of the social and cultural roles played by these far-from-insignificant genres.
I can’t wait to see where these scholars take these compelling and vital American projects!
Next scholars tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Responses to these projects and scholars? Other AmericanStudiers you’d highlight?

Monday, February 18, 2013

February 18, 2013: AmericanStudiers to Watch, Part One

[One of my ongoing resolutions is to attend more conferences—for lots of reasons, but especially to connect with my fellow scholars. This week, I’ll be briefly highlighting some impressive AmericanStudiers I’ve recently had the chance to meet and see in action, both at November’s American Studies Association conference and at January’s Modern Language Association one. Would love to hear your suggestions for other AmericanStudiers to watch, and will compile the ongoing list for the weekend post!]
On three talented young Native American Studiers and their interdisciplinary and cross-cultural projects.
The first panel I had the chance to attend at the ASA Conference focused on images and narratives of Native Americans, and featured three graduate students who shared portions of their interesting and important dissertation research:
1)      AshleyWiersma of Michigan State gave a talk on the construction and development of the Noble Savage myth in both French and Anglo colonial-era discourses. She’s working with some very complex and interesting primary texts, including letters and journals written by missionaries such as Louis Hennepin and Father Buisson de St. Cosme and William Robertson’s History of America (1777). And she’s tying that historical work to the linguistic and philosophical development of concepts such as “civilization.”
2)      Marcel Garcia of Yale presented a paper on cultural retention, expression, and adaptation in California’s missions. He focused here specifically on the Ohlone tribe, the Spanish mission in their region, other European vessels who arrived there, and the multiple roles of dance for those communities. His emphasis on the vessels and arrivals was particularly rich, as it complicates any easy division of the community between the Ohlone and the Spanish.
3)      Ryan Hall, also of Yale, spoke about popular narratives and stereotypes of the Blackfeet, and specifically the multi-stage development of the concept of the “terrible Blackfeet, scourge of the upper Missouri.” This project connects to numerous interesting early to mid-19th century figures and texts, from Lewis and Clark and Colter’s Run to the Missouri Fur Company and Five Years a Captive among the Blackfeet Indians (1858). He also indicated his contuing work to find and incorporate additional Blackfeet voices, which will add even more layers to this cross-cultural American theme.
Three young AmericanStudiers worth keeping an eye on for sure!
Next scholars tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Responses to these projects and scholars? Other AmericanStudiers you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

February 16-17, 2013: Crowd-sourced Love

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ve been highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and loves of fellow AmericanStudiers—but there’s lots more to love, so add your thoughts, please!]
Amanda Couture shares the Sylvia Plath love, for the poems highlighted in that post as well as for “Ariel.”
Jeff Renye highlights another favorite moment from an American film, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. You know you love it (whatever it may be)! So share it, please!

Friday, February 15, 2013

February 15, 2013: I Love Memento’s Closing Monologue

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
[Also, another FYI: this post, while not quite as spoilerific as yesterday’s, will focus on some key elements to the final sequence in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000). Which if you haven’t seen, go watch and then come on back. I’ll be here.]
On the dark, cynical, and unquestionably human final words of a contemporary American classic.
I might be stretching things a bit by calling Memento (2000) an American classic—after all, it was directed by Englishman Christopher Nolan; adapted from a short story, “Memento Mori,” by his equally English brother Jonathan; and stars Aussie Guy Pearce and Canadian Carrie-Anne Moss in two of the three principal roles. But I’m sticking to my guns, and not just because the film is set in the western United States (specifically Nevada, I believe, based on the glimpses we get of license plates; key earlier events and flashbacks take place in California). To me, some of the film’s central themes, while unquestionably universal in significance, echo particularly American narratives: the idea, or perhaps the myth, of the self-made man, creating himself anew out of will and ambition, writing his own future on a blank page (or, in this case, his own body); the Western film trope of a lone warrior, a quiet and threatening man with seemingly no identity or past, traveling on a quest for justice and/or revenge, and entering and changing a corrupt town in the process. In those and other core ways, Memento is deeply and importantly American.
Given that Americanness, and given that it’s a mystery—if a highly unconventional and postmodern one to be sure—it’s likely no surprise that I love the film. But compared to most of the loves I’ve shared this week, and compared to my general AmericanStudying attitude for that matter, Memento is also strikingly dark and cynical; it takes that tone throughout, but most especially in its final revelations and in the interior monologue with which it concludes (that scene is more spoilerific than I’m going to be here, so don’t watch if you haven’t seen the film!). That monologue’s middle section feels logical and rational enough, particularly the lines “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still here.” But it begins with the speaker, protagonist Leonard Shelby, making one of the most blatantly and purposefully self-deceptive and disturbing choices ever put on film, while thinking, ““Do I lie to myself to be happy? … Yes I will.” And so when Leonard (and the film) ends by arguing, “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different,” it seems, in the specific context of what he has done and is doing, who and what he has been revealed to be, to be a profoundly pessimistic perspective on human nature and identity.
Maybe it is that pessimistic—it’s okay if so, not everything can end on notes of hard-won hope, much as I enjoy the concept. The world’s more complex and multi-faceted than that. But if we take a step back from some of the specifics of what Leonard is doing at this moment, it’s also possible to read his actions here, and throughout the film, as purely and simply and definingly human. He’s trying to make meaning out of the world around him, out of the details of his own life (and most especially the hardest and toughest of them), out of what has happened and what is happening and what he hopes to make happen in the time to come. What Leonard does overtly—in those tattoos on his skin, in his photographs and note cards and wall hangings, in his constant interior monologue—is what we all do more subtly but just as constantly: read and respond to the world around us, and make it part of our developing narratives and stories and identities. Granted, I hope that we can do it in less destructive ways than Leonard; he does have that unique condition to contend with, after all (spoilers there too!). But we all do it, and one of the things I love most about Memento is its ability to hold that mirror up to us and how we move through the world.
Crowd-sourced loves this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for that weekend post?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

February 14, 2013: I Love Three Pages in Ceremony

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
[Also, just FYI: this post will be spoiling the heck out of the climax to its focal text, Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977). If you haven’t read it, well, go do so ASAP and then meet me back here!]
On the climactic decision and its aftermath that together exemplify everything I love about America and American literature.
There are lots of reasons why we read fiction: to see aspects of our identities reflected yet also to connect to experiences and lives different from our own; to learn about dark and painful realities yet also to be inspired by what can be; to be entertained and comforted yet also to be challenged and forced to grow; to remember and to imagine; and so many more. When I think about the American novels that I’d put at the top of my list—an ever-changing category, but certainly including The Marrow of Tradition; The Awakening; My Ántonia; Absalom, Absalom!; and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—what tends to link them is that they achieve many of these goals and effects. And I’m not sure any American novel comes closer to achieving all of them than Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), a work both specific to its worlds and contexts (Laguna Pueblo Native American culture, World War II veteran experiences, the Southwest United States) and universally relevant, both traditional and postmodern, both historical and supernatural, both tragic and inspiring.
Every element and moment of Silko’s novel contributes to those aspects and effects, but I’d say they all coalesce in one climactic and amazing three-page section. As I wrote in this post, the section begins with the protagonist, Tayo, making a utopian choice: faced with a situation in which it’s practically impossible for him not to respond with violence (particularly since he has done so in an parallel yet not as extreme earlier moment), Tayo instead courageously resists that impulse, and the forces of evil, prejudice, and destruction (within his community, nationally, and spiritually) that lie behind it. Having done so, he comes over the next two pages to a series of powerful and crucial epiphanies and revelations: about history and heritage, his family and his identity, the reservation and the nation, his long-lost mother and his own life and future, about, in short, every central character, setting, and theme in the novel. I’ve taught Silko’s novel at least ten separate times now, and I’ll freely admit to getting choked up each and every time I read this section.
It’s a beautiful and powerful moment on many levels, but I suppose if I had to boil it down, I would do so through a quote from another inspiring American scene in a work I love: President Andrew Shepherd’s climactic speech in The American President (1995). The speech is full of great lines, but I’m thinking specifically of this one: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.” To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Tayo, or any Native American, has to “earn” his or her American citizenship any more fully than any of the rest of us. Quite the opposite, I’d say that Tayo here exemplifies a concept both Shepherd and I would apply to all Americans: that if we hope to reach our ideals, our best selves—as individuals, as communities, and as a nation—well, to quote my favorite line from this section in Silko’s novel, “The only thing is: it has never been easy.” It’s far easier to give in to the worst of what we have been or can be, whether that means meeting violence and hate with the same, getting cynical and pessimistic about the future, settling for far less than we can be, or any other understandable but limiting and ultimately destructive choice. But as Tayo and Silko demonstrate in this amazing section, the hard way is the better, and the American, way.
My last American love (for the week) tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February 13, 2013: I Love Plath’s Most Personal Poem

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
On the text that expresses the universal experience of new parenthood as well as any I’ve encountered—while still being clearly its unique and talented author’s handiwork.
First I have to ask you to check out a couple of past posts: this one, on the incredible challenges of parenting in general and motherhood in particular; and this one, on Sylvia Plath’s much more varied and rich body of works than we often give her credit for. I’ll understand if you skip right to the next paragraph, but I’d love for you to have a sense of both of those posts before I move forward here. Thanks!
Welcome back. Given those two posts, it’ll likely come as no surprise that the poem of Plath’s on which this post focuses, “Morning Song” (1961), is about motherhood; new motherhood, and the experience of new parenting overall, to be exact. I’ve seen critical arguments that the poem is bleak or cynical, but I don’t think that’s nearly the whole story; instead I’d argue that it captures, in its six three-line stanzas, the many different emotions and sides to new parenting, from those darkest responses (which are definitely there, especially with a first newborn, whether we like to admit it or not) to the more awed and amazed and powerfully inspired ones. To me, the poem’s best stanza, and its most Plath-ian metaphor, captures those multi-faceted responses pitch-perfectly: “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.” But if that doesn’t seem amazed enough, the next stanza (and these two occupy the poem’s midpoint) moves more toward those emotions: “All night your moth-breath / Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen: / A far sea moves in my ear.”
Great stuff. But in my title I called this Plath’s most personal poem—and given that this is the poet who wrote about her suicide attempts (“Lady Lazarus”) and her love-hate relationships with her dead father and estranged husband (“Daddy”), among many many many other profoundly personal topics, that might seem to be a stretch. But to my mind, those poems are personal yet performative, the confessional mode as a combination of diary and one woman show. That’s not a bad thing, but neither is it raw or intimate enough to be truly personal. Whereas in “Morning Song,” written when Plath’s first child (her daughter Frieda) was 8 months old, I believe we’re getting something far more immediate, a genuine reflection (note again that cloud-mirror metaphor) of all that Plath was experiencing and feeling in that first year as a mother. Granted, she still turned it into a dense and complex poem; but that was Plath. I love her, and I love this poem most of all.
My next American love tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

February 12, 2013: I Love Chesnutt in His Journals

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
On the honesty, self-reflection, and unabashed ambition contained in the personal journals of my favorite American author.
I daresay most of us—including this AmericanStudier to be sure—have kept a youthful journal (or diary, as I called it), have recorded in secret, for our eyes only, our fears and hopes, our doubts and goals, and above all our constant romantic frustrations and failures (no, just me?). But the private journal of a young professional writer? That’s an entirely different proposition. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Nature” (1836), that “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me”; while he was arguing that that is the case for all people, I would say that it’s infinitely more true for those who hope that their writing will find a public audience. Even if the young professional writer doesn’t plan for his or her journal to be read—and honestly, it seems likely to me for many to secretly hope that they’ll become famous enough that it will—that journal nonetheless becomes an extension of the burgeoning career, a space where its possibilities and problems can be addressed, engaged with, given explicit shape and definition. And I don’t know of a more exemplary, nor more compelling and American, such young professional writer’s journal than that of Charles W. Chesnutt.
When I give my brief introduction to Chesnutt in my American Literature II survey course (on the first of our four days with The Marrow of Tradition [1901]), I focus on many of the ways in which his life and identity existed on a complex border between different realities: born in Ohio, just before the Civil War, to parents who had been slaves in North Carolina, he then moved back to North Carolina after the war and lived there most of his adult life; born to African American parents but with both grandfathers white men (likely his parents’ owners), he was light-skinned enough to pass for white but apparently chose to self-identify as African American throughout his life; he began his career writing dialect historical fiction in the plantation tradition (although in a far more complex and subversive vein than most of the tradition’s authors), then shifted abruptly to contemporary political and social novels; and so on. One thing that makes Chesnutt’s journals so darn loveable is that he was apparently fully aware of those many complex liminal spaces he identified, and numerous moments reflect his nuanced engagement with them. One of the richest is when he takes on the task of revising and compiling a collection of African American spirituals for a charismatic local minister: Chesnutt on the one hand acknowledges that the spirituals represent a vernacular and somewhat lowbrow literary form, but on the other hand recognizes that they have a power denied much highbrow literature; he also both takes pride in his authorly role in revising and reshaping them (and the recognition he might receive) and yet admits that the minister is the real driving force behind the project (as well as in the community).
It’s on that latter theme, Chesnutt’s hopes and fears, his goals and concerns, for his literary career, that I find the journals most impressive and loveable. “My principal object,” the 19 year old Chesnutt wrote in the first entry of the journal (in 1877), is to improve myself in the art of composition”; that meant in part specific readings of and responses to rhetorical and composition advice manuals, such as Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), but also and more crucially honest and yet deeply ambitious self-reflections on his strengths and weaknesses, his potential and challenges, and above all his goals and purposes, as a writer. Some of those reflections are full of the confidence required to make it as a professional writer: responding to Albion Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand (1881), Chesnutt wonders, “Why could not a colored man write a far better book about the South?” Some are far more humble and poignant, as when Chesnutt admits that, despite having “so little experience in composition, … I think I must write a book.” Some are particularly ambitious and inspiring, as when Chesnutt frames two distinct yet interconnected social purposes for his career: “If I can exalt my race”; “The object of my writings would be the elevation of the whites.” And all, all these personal yet professional revelations, make me love Chesnutt that much more.
My next American love tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?

Monday, February 11, 2013

February 11, 2013: I Love the Shaws

[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
Why I love one of America’s most striking and impressive parental decisions.
I’m sure there are lots of reasons to love Francis George Shaw and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw. The Bostonian couple were devoted and passionate abolitionists, which despite popular misconceptions was far from a widespread or popular position in mid-19th century New England (much less New York, where they moved in the early 1850s). They befriended and supported some of the era’s most innovative, interesting, and impressive literary, cultural, and social figures, both while living adjacent to Brook Farm and in their later neighborhood on Staten Island. And they cleary did a wonderful job raising their five children to carry on their progressive identities and perspectives, at least if their only son, Robert Gould Shaw, is any indication—even if we leave aside Shaw’s decision to command the 54th Massachusetts, one of the nation’s first official African American regiments, Robert’s letters reveal a young man of unique and impressive maturity, insight, openmindedness, and character.
But honestly, even if I learned that the Shaws kept a torture chamber in their basement where they practiced ritualistic Satanism on innocent passers-by, I’d still love them, thanks to the exemplary and profoundly American decision they made at one of their toughest and darkest moments. When Robert was killed during the regiment’s unsuccessful assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, the Confederate forces buried him with the rest of the regiment’s dead; “with his niggers,” as the fort’s commander, future South Carolina Governor Johnson Hagood, replied when a Union general wrote to inquire about what had happened to Shaw’s body. When Shaw’s fellow regimental officers wrote to his grieving parents to ask if they wanted to press for his body to be disinterred and brought back North for a full burial with honors, Francis wrote back, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers, if we could accomplish it by a word. Please to bear this in mind and also, let it be known, so that, even in case there should be an opportunity, his remains may not be disturbed.”
If it wasn’t easy to be an abolitionist in the best of circumstances, which certainly the wealthy Shaw family often experienced—and, again, it most definitely wasn’t—I can only imagine how incredibly difficult it was in this horrifically difficult moment. And it’s not like the alternative decision would have been necessarily a negative one—who could critique the Shaws if they asked for their only son’s body to be returned home, to have the chance to bury him and pay full tribute to all he had done and sacrificed? But they chose instead to honor what lay behind those actions: his principles, his ideals, and his powerfully American sense of community, which were of course also their own but which Robert had taken to another and even more striking level. (And which would be echoed in Saint-Gaudens’ amazing Shaw Memorial a few decades later.) As a parent, I respect that choice so much, and hope that I would have the courage and conviction to do the same. As an American, well, I just plain love the Shaws.
My next American love tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

February 9-10, 2013: Crowd-sourced Remembering

[Last year, to honor Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—, I remembered amazing African American writers: Lucille Clifton, Harlem Renaissance authors, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and David Walker. This year, I have focused on complex and compelling historical conversations. This crowd-sourced post is drawm from the responses and suggestions of fellow Black History- and AmericanStudiers—please add yours below!]
Matt Goguen suggests, “Zora Neale Hurston, not only for her most known work Their Eyes Were Watching God but for her extensive work with the WPA during the Great Depression and cultural/folklore fieldwork.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Thoughts you’d add to these?

Friday, February 8, 2013

February 8, 2013: Remembering Baldwin and Buckley

[Last year, to honor Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—, I remembered amazing African American writers: Lucille Clifton, Harlem Renaissance authors, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and David Walker. This year, I’ll focus on complex and compelling historical conversations. Please share your suggestions for figures, histories, and other African American and American stories and memories for the weekend post!]
On the civil but definitely combative debate that helped signal two distinct but interconnected cultural and social shifts.
On October 26, 1965, novelist, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin met journalist, essayist, and cultural critic William F. Buckley, Jr. in a televised debate at Cambridge University’s Cambridge Union Society. The debate’s topic was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro,” and the liberal African Amercian Baldwin and conservative white Buckley took the respective positions on that theme that you would expect. As voted on by the (almost entirely white) Cambridge audience, the contest wasn’t close—they scored the debate 540 to 160 for Baldwin. And I would argue that anyone who watches the debate in its entirety would have to come to the same conclusion—Baldwin, who spoke first, simply owned the occasion with his combination of eloquence, passion, personal appeals, and logical arguments; Buckley, while as erudite and witty as ever, had few if any rejoinders of substance.
The debate is well worth watching for its own specific ideas and exchanges, as well as an introduction to both of these influential and talented American voices and figures. But it also illustrates a couple of complex and significant American shifts taking place in this 1960s moment, both of which have continued into the early 21st century. For one thing, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and parallel developments, African American figures such as Baldwin were beginning to be granted the possibility that their voices could participate in conversations at every level and in every community within American (and world) society. Anyone familiar with David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B Du Bois, and so many other Americans is of course well aware that African Americans could have participated at that level—at any and all levels—throughout American history; but for the most part, those individuals and their contemporaries were met by a very circumscribed sphere of activity. The broadening of that sphere took many decades, many figures, many moments like Baldwin’s invitation to, and dominant performance at, the Cambridge debate—but the debate can nonetheless highlight that shift very clearly and powerfully.
The 1960s also saw another national shift, however, one in a very different direction from—and indeed in some key ways inspired by—the broadening of African American possibilities. The simplest way to describe that shift is with the political concept referred to as the Southern Strategy: that Southern white supremacists switched political parties and/or were wooed away from their prior party, changing in either case from old-school Southern Democrats to Nixonian Republicans (a shift that culminated in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, but that perhaps is still unfolding and hardening). Yet I would argue that this shift was generational as well as regional—that whereas the white supremacy of prior decades had been, in its defining qualities, an aging philosophy, one longing for the distant Southern past; this new racism was embodied by younger (Buckley was not yet 40 at the time of the debate, younger by two years than Baldwin) and more forward-looking perspectives, arguments not about a lost or ideal past but also the kind of future America that these Republican racists hope to achieve. Which, to my mind, made this new racism even more dangerous and destructive—for when Buckley argued, in a 1961 editorial endorsing segregation, that “the cultural superiority of White over Negro … is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists,” he did so to argue for policies and goals that had real and lasting impact on our politics and society.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Responses to these figures and this moment? Other Black History Month connections you’d share for that weekend post?