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Friday, May 31, 2013

May 31, 2013: Remembering Lee and Longstreet

[This is the fifth and final entry in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out last year’s series for more!]

On the Civil War general we idolize—and the other one we should.
This blog might make it seem as if I’m immune to the processes of buying into simplifying narratives, of forgetting or ignoring certain complexities and realities in favor of more black and white or appealing histories and stories, that I spend a lot of time writing about here. Well, I’m here today to tell you that the truth is quite the opposite—in many if not most of these cases, I’m aware of the power of the existing narratives precisely because they’ve significantly influenced me in one way or another, and my attempts to push back against them, to highlight the events and figures and texts and stories that they elide or subsume, are thus for my own continuing benefit at least as much as they are for any and all audiences who might find and read this blog. And for no topic does that apply nearly as fully as it does for today’s starting point, the deification of Robert E. Lee.
I grew up in a town that—like many in the South I’m sure—had a park and statue honoring Lee, so maybe my childhood affection for the General began with simple osmosis. But as I started to become a hard-core Civil War buff in my own right, that affection only grew—partly because the guy just plain knew how to win battles (especially compared to those morons and buffoons who led the Union Army right up until Grant; if you can feel any affection for McClellan, you’re a better buff than I), but also because of that sense of a thoughtful and sensitive and impressive personality and character existing alongside the tactical genius. This was the man who, the story goes, in looking over the aftermath of Fredericksburg, a Confederate victory but also one of the bloodier battles in which he participated, famously remarked that “it is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” And even as I got older and more cognizant of the evils for which the Confederacy stood (and the more subtle but perhaps even more evil forces that had contributed greatly to commemorations of the Confederacy and its leaders after the War), I still for many years fully endorsed the narrative of Lee as a reluctant Confederate, one who disagreed with the cause and hated fighting against his old West Point comrades but who couldn’t turn his back on the Virginia that was his home and homeland in every sense.
There’s some truth to that narrative, without question. But as I researched (for a couple chapters in my dissertation/first book) the late 19th century rise of a Southern version of both the Civil War and American history more generally (what came to be known in part as the Lost Cause narrative and in part as the plantation tradition), I began to learn about just how much that rise coincided with the deification of Lee, with Southern mythmakers figuring out how to frame the man to make him not only palatable for national audiences, but in fact a hero who could help the nation elide the slavery and race-related sides to the Civil War almost entirely. And at the same time, I learned much more about one of Lee’s fellow Confederate generals (and in many ways his second-in-command), James Longstreet, a man whose political and social perspectives and opinions underwent dramatic transformations in the post-bellum years, leading him to embrace not only Reconstruction and the Republican Party of Lincoln but also equal rights for African Americans. All of those changes, along with Longstreet’s explicit criticisms of Lee in conversations and speeches and then published writings during this period, made him an easy target for the Lost Cause chroniclers, a figure whose demonization could parallel Lee’s deification very fully and successfully. And I’ll be the first to admit that the two processes worked, even 100 years after the fact; young devotee of everything Civil War-related that I was, I knew and liked a lot about Lee, and thought of Longstreet mostly as the guy whose mistakes greatly contributed to the Confederacy’s turning-point loss at Gettysburg.
The identities and lives of both men don’t, of course, fit any more perfectly into a flipped hierarchy than they did into the Lost Cause’s one. Lee was indeed thoughtful and did have his issues with secession, although he was also (among other flaws) deeply elitist about class and status; Longstreet was clearly a prickly and difficult person in many ways, although he was also (among other strengths) one of the most well-read and intelligent American military leaders of any era. So the main lesson here is, as always, that we need to look back into the histories and texts and identities ourselves, rather than accepting the narratives that have been created and recreated for so long; and the parallel lesson here is, very clearly I hope, just how much that process impacts and continues for me as well.
May Recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30, 2013: Remembering the Battle of New Orleans

[This is the fourth in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out last year’s series for more!]

On three striking sides to one of America’s most insignificant victories.
The first thing that stands out about the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans is that it was entirely unnecessary. Not in the “War: what is it good for?” sense, but quite literally unnecessary: the War of 1812 had been ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, but the various signatories were still in the process of ratifying the treaty and word had not reached the British troops who were trying to take the city and with it the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory. So the attack continued, the American troops led by Major General Andrew Jackson fought back, and the U.S. won its clearest military victory of the war after that conflict had officially ceased.
If the victory was thus officially meaningless, however, the composition of those American forces was far more significant. I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the uniquely multicultural, -national, and –lingual identify of New Orleans, and the army fighting to protect the city reflected that identity very fully: the relatively small force (it numbered around 8000, noticeably fewer than the British forces) included French Creole troops from New Orleans (some commanded by the former pirate Jean Lafitte), both free African American residents of the city (colloquially known as fmcs, “free men of color”) and slaves who had been freed specifically to aid in the battle, and Choctaw Native Americans, among other communities.
Moreover, one particular such community is even more striking and unremembered in our national narratives. Since the mid-18th century, a group of Filipino immigrants had settled in a Louisiana town known as Manila Village, comprising what seems likely to be the oldest (and certainly the most enduring) Asian American community. Men from the village joined Lafitte’s forces for the battle, helping to create the truly multicultural fighting unit known as the “Batarians.” It’s difficult for me to overstate how much would change in our understanding of American history and community if we acknowledged at all, much less engaged at length with, this fact: that in one of our earliest military efforts, our forces included French Creole and Filipino Americans, fighting side by side to defend the city and nation that were and remain their home.
The week’s final remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29, 2013: Remembering Benedict Arnold

[This is the third in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out last year’s series for more!]

On the benefits and the limitations to remembering our most infamous traitor the way we do.
I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t remember Benedict Arnold as one of our first, and one of our most enduring, national traitors, because, well, he was. Compared to the contested and still controversial treason accusations leveled at his contemporary Aaron Burr, Arnold’s traitorous acts were far more overt and undisputed—when Major Andre was caught and Arnold’s plan to hand over the fort at West Point to British forces discovered, Arnold immediately went over to the British side and helped lead their war effort for the war’s remaining two years; after the Revolution he settled in England and lived out his remaining two decades of life in that adopted homeland.
So Arnold was a traitor to the Revolutionary army and cause, and remembering him as such is certainly accurate to the specific histories and events. Doing so is also beneficial on a broader level, as it forces us to recognize the Founding Fathers and their iconic Revolutionary peers as no less human and flawed than any other leaders or people. Arnold was one of the Revolution’s first war heroes, playing a decisive role in the early victory at Saratoga and other conflicts; yet just two short years later, politics and preferences within the Continental Army, coupled with financial difficulties (perhaps due to lending money to the Continental Army, which would be a textbook definition of irony), led Arnold to cast his lot with the same forces he had helped defeat at Saratoga.  
Yet there’s at least one significant downside to remembering Arnold as a traitor, or more exactly to the collective blind spot that such memories reveal. After all, the most simple yet most commonly ignored fact of the Revolution is this: it represented an act of treason against the colonists’ Royal government, and each and every American involved in it was thus a traitor. (There was a reason why Ben Franklin worried, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, about everyone hanging separately if they did not hang together.) Awareness of that fact might not change our collective perspective on the Revolution and its leaders—but might it not at least shift our understanding of the loyalists, of those who sided (lawfully) with England during the war? As a soldier who sold out his comrades, Arnold was of course something more than just a loyalist—but the point here is that treason, during the Revolution, was a loaded and complex concept however we look at it.
Next remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 28, 2013: Remembering William Dawes

[This is the second in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out last year’s series for more!]

On the vagaries of collective memory, and whether they matter.
Is it just as simple as the need for rhymes? That’s long been the predominant theory for why Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poetic ballad about “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” instead of Revere’s fellow rider William Dawes. There seems to be some truth to that, but it’s also true that by 1860, when Longfellow composed his poem, Revere was already significantly better remembered in our Revolutionary histories than Dawes. Longfellow’s easily memorized bit of verse certainly cemented that status and permanently relegated Dawes to a distant second fiddle; but somehow, Revere seems to have been the front-runner from the very first lighting of those lanterns.
Whatever the timeline and reasons, clearly our collective memories feature Paul Revere far more fully than they do William Dawes. But does it matter? After all, few American actions have been as much about shaping the present, impacting the immediate moment and its vital needs, as the two men’s rides—had they not succeeded in warning the colonists of the Redcoats’ imminent arrival, it’s entirely possible that there would be no America, or at least that its Revolution would have gotten off to a significantly different and less victorious start. Which is to say, what William Dawes did in his life echoes in eternity precisely as much as does Revere’s ride, and no disparity in memory can change that shared influence.
And yet. Obviously I believe that remembering our histories with more accuracy and complexity matters, and Dawes presents a case in point. For one thing, I’d say it’s pretty significant that the midnight ride was a joint endeavor—we love our rugged individuals here in America, but so much of the time it really takes a village, or at least a couple of guys coordinating their efforts, to get the job done. And for another thing, better remembering Dawes would help us to recognize how constructed and over-simplified and mythic our national narratives tend to be—which might be fine for a ballad about a larger-than-life hero, but is woefully inadequate when it comes to the dynamic messiness that is history. It might be a lot harder to fit “The midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes” into a rhyme scheme and rhythm, that is, but we most definitely need to fit them into our collective memories.
Next remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, May 27, 2013

May 27, 2013: Memory and Memorials

[This is the first of a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts; this one a repeat of a still relevant post! Check out last year’s series for more!]

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation: I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?
I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.
Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having just heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be.
Next Memorial Day post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

May 25-26, 2013: Crowd-Sourced Beach Reads Redux

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I’ve done the same this year. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the suggestions of fellow AmericanStudiers and beachgoers—please share your nominees to give us the most options for our tan-inducing page-turners!]
Kelly Sloane suggests, “1Q84, anything Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tennessee Williams, or Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo.”
Erin Kingsley writes, “If I had time, I would read Wolf Hall, The Orphan Master's Son, then Where'd You Go, Bernadette. If I had time...”
Chance Lee writes, “Karen Russell's Swamplandia! is an excellent beach read. It's set in Florida -- oh land of meth heads, sinkholes, Disney World, and alligator-filled swamps -- and Russell does a great job portraying all the different sides of this strange state (drugs! theme parks! alligators!) and transforming them into a compelling coming-of-age story. There's even a little bit of Florida history tucked in for bonus educational value. It's sticky and sweaty and weird; so: perfect for summer reading.”
Wesley Raabe writes, “If your contemporary lit friends are reading 50 Shades, then you could whip out Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures.”
Susan Stark writes, “My recommendation is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. While apocalyptic-type novels have been done to death, this one manages to catch onto a few interestingly complex ideas. If there were only a handful of people left, what parts of your culture would you be capable of carrying forward? How long could you live like a parasite off of the remains of a system that no longer exists? And how do you start over when you are surrounded by the crumbling remains of a dead society? In one of the most poignant scenes, the main character tries to express to his children (born after the ‘disaster’) the importance of reading so that they may learn all of the things their forefathers have already figured out. But to the children, the library is a source of fuel for their fires, not their minds. How would you let it all go? And what things are truly worth fighting to save? Good stuff to think about on the beach!”
Steve Railton writes, “My favorite summer reading includes RE-reading, i.e. to make sure I take one book I read some time ago and loved, and give myself the chance to see what the experience of reading it is like now.”
Since I wrote this week’s series, I’ve also come upon another great historical novel that rivals Sayles’ in summer readability (if not quite in size): Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What are you bringing to the beach this summer?

Friday, May 24, 2013

May 24, 2013: American Studies Beach Reads Redux, Part Five

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d do the same this year; I’m doing so a good bit earlier this time to give you some good options for your Memorial Day Weekend reading. Please share your nominees for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll kick off its shoes and settle into the hammock!]
Five more nominations for great beach reads, drawn from past blog posts:
All worth your seaside time! Crowd-sourced reads this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what would you nominate as an AmericanStudies beach read? I need suggestions for my towel time too!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

May 23, 2013: American Studies Beach Reads Redux, Part Four

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d do the same this year; I’m doing so a good bit earlier this time to give you some good options for your Memorial Day Weekend reading. Please share your nominees for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll kick off its shoes and settle into the hammock!]
On the biting autobiographical novel that also packs an emotional punch.
I’ve written about Fanny Fern at length in two prior posts, so in lieu of my first two paragraphs I’ll just link to those:
Any of Fern’s writing would keep you good company on the beach, but here I want to make a brief case for her autobiographical first novel, Ruth Hall (1854). It’s true that if you know the real-life people on whom many of the novel’s character are based, it takes on an added layer of sting; but even without that knowledge, Ruth offers the same striking combination as Fern’s best columns: a mixture of sarcastic humor and poignant emotion, of sly wit and painful honesty, of social satire and confessional roman à clef. Like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell-Jar (1963), with which it has a good deal in common, Fern’s novel will make you laugh and cry within the same page, or even the same sentence—and that pretty rare feat makes for some great beach reading if you ask me.
Final beach reads tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Nominations for AmericanStudies beach reads? Share ‘em please!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

May 22, 2013: American Studies Beach Reads Redux, Part Three

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d do the same this year; I’m doing so a good bit earlier this time to give you some good options for your Memorial Day Weekend reading. Please share your nominees for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll kick off its shoes and settle into the hammock!]
On the two one-woman shows that are just as evocative on the page as on the stage.
In this era of tablets and smartphones (which Word doesn’t identify as a spelling error, just to drive the point home), there’s no reason we’d have to limit beach reads to written texts. You can watch a YouTube video clip just as easily, and when it comes to theatrical performances, there’s a lot to be said for doing so, for getting at least a sense of their performative (that one Word underlines, but I’m going to keep it) qualities. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t first link to this opening part of Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1991) and this trailer for an adaptation of her Twilight: Los Angeles (1992).
As the first clip’s introduction notes, Smith works in a very unique and compelling way: interviewing hundreds of people in response to a particular historical event (New York’s Crown Heights riot for Fires, the 1992 LA riots for Twilight), and then turning their words and voices into a crowd-sourced document that she performs herself in their various characters (although the above-linked Twilight adaptation uses multiple actors instead). Smith is as talented a performer as she is a writer, and so again there’s much to be said for watching and hearing her take on these voices and stories, as you can do (if you have an hour and some good wifi) with all four parts of the above-linked version of Fires.
But if you’re on the beach without internet access or a high-tech 21st century device? Well, I was introduced to Smith through the published, textual version of Twilight, and I can say with certainty that she makes these voices and characters and communities come to life just as powerfully in that form. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the opportunity to hear them all in our own head, with no performance choices filtering them, distinguishing them from one another, perhaps rendering one or another sympathetic or annoying to our ears. Their subjects are the height of divisive and violent controversies, moments that pitted Americans against Americans in the worst ways—but the texts offer us the chance to hear all sides, and, as Walt put it, “filter them from your self.” Pretty good way to spend some quality beach time if you ask me.
Next beach read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Nominations for AmericanStudies beach reads? Share ‘em please!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May 21, 2013: American Studies Beach Reads Redux, Part Two

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d do the same this year; I’m doing so a good bit earlier this time to give you some good options for your Memorial Day Weekend reading. Please share your nominees for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll kick off its shoes and settle into the hammock!]
On the ginormous historical novel that’s well worth your (substantial) time.
If you’re like me, I probably don’t need to convince you to read John Sayles’ 955-page A Moment in the Sun (2011). Which is to say, if you share my belief that Sayles has directed some of the best American films of the last half-century, and moreover share my sense that it’s both his novelistic style and form and his willingness to engage with the complexities of history that make those films as compelling and successful as they are, then I bet all I have to say is that Moment traces the lives and experiences of more than a dozen compelling American characters in a perfectly realized late 19th and early 20th century world—that it’s like a great Sayles film on the page, ready for you to dive into and immerse yourself in at your leisure—and you’ll be picking up a copy.
But if you’re somehow not on the Sayles bandwagon already, would I still recommend Moment for your beach reading list? Hell yes I would, and I’m glad you asked. Like all the great historical fiction, Sayles’ novel really takes you there—to the frozen wasteland of the Yukon Gold Rush, to the sweltering jungles of the Filipino insurrection, to the terrifying streets of the Wilmington massacre, and to numerous other historical settings and moments that comprise, in each case but even more so collectively, under-remembered and potent American histories. You’ll look up at the sand dunes and have to remind yourself that you’re not actually climbing those frozen stairs with all your belongings on your back, desperately hoping that you’ll find a hot meal and perhaps a traveling companion you can trust at the top—and what can fiction do that’s better than such total immersion?
Not much; but when a novel can be that compelling and immersive and yet at the same time feel profoundly salient to our own moment and issues, can take you far away from our world and yet at the same time leave you feeling as if you better understand where we are, well that’s an even more worthwhile read. And Sayles’ novel does that—not in the somewhat pedantic manner that sometimes characterizes his second-tier films, but simply by telling these American stories and creating these human characters, fictional experiences and identities that resonate with our own histories and lives and give us a chance to consider the worst and best of what America has been and continues to be. Believe me, I know what I’m asking—but bring this doorstopper to the beach. You won’t be disappointed.
Next beach read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Nominations for AmericanStudies beach reads? Share ‘em please!

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 20, 2013: American Studies Beach Reads Redux, Part One

[Last year, I helped celebrate summer with a series on American Studies Beach Reads. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I’d do the same this year; I’m doing so a good bit earlier this time to give you some good options for your Memorial Day Weekend reading. Please share your nominees for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll kick off its shoes and settle into the hammock!]
On the book that takes us back to one of the most complex and inspiring American summers.
One of the topics that came up a good deal in my just-completed English Studies Capstone course (about which I wrote last Thursday) was the coming summer, and how the students might be able to use it to move into or toward different careers, interests, passions, next steps of one kind or another. As you might expect in our current world and economy, work is a key component for these students—even those who were considering unpaid internships had to figure out how to balance them with compensated employment as well. But nonetheless, I consistently made the case that they need to consider not only what they need but also what they want, and what can inspire them—and one great model for the latter would be 1964’s Freedom Summer.
Of the more than 1000 volunteers who traveled to Mississippi that June to help register African American voters, the three who were murdered in the first ten days are by far the most famous (and rightly so). Yet I would argue that many of the experiences of the other volunteers were just as extreme and lasting, if of course in less tragic and more evolving and inspiring ways—and I know that because of Doug McAdam’s pioneering and compelling Freedom Summer (1990). McAdam balances interviews with former volunteers and sociological analyses of their community and experiences with historical contexts and sweep; his book is as much about the afterlives of the volunteers (most of which do not at all fit the stereotypical ex-hippie-turned-yuppie narrative) as about their 1964 experiences, making it a history of late 20th century America on multiple, interconnected fronts.
That combination of depth and breadth makes it a significant AmericanStudies text, but the book is also a great beach read for two additional reasons. For one thing, it’s a page-turner—we may know what happened with the Civil Rights Movement in general post-1964, but we don’t know much about these individual lives and identities, nor those of the communities with which they were engaged in that summer; and McAdam makes sure that we care a great deal about what happens to them. And to come back to my initial point, it’s also hugely inspiring, makes you want to get out of that hammock and do something to make the world a better place. Can’t think of a better cure for any potential summertime blues than that!
Next beach read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Nominations for AmericanStudies beach reads? Share ‘em please!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 18-19, 2013: Next Semester Thoughts

After a week of reflections on the semester that’s ending, I thought it made sense to look ahead for a moment to the one that’ll start in a few months. I already spent a week blogging about my Major Author: W.E.B. Du Bois course, so here are quick thoughts on the other five courses I’m scheduled to teach this fall:
1)      My Next ALFA Course: Haven’t gotten too far into planning this one yet, but one thing that came up in the last ALFA discussion this time was the idea of pairing under-read 19th century American authors with compelling 21st century ones: Sui Sin Far and Gish Jen, for example. Suggestions for other such pairings very welcome!
2)      Grad Historical Fiction: I’m extremely excited to be teaching, for the third time, a graduate course (in our Master’s program) that I created, on American Historical Fiction. It should probably be called Ben’s Favorite Authors and Novels: Hawthorne, Sedgwick, The Marrow of Tradition, Absalom, Ceremony, Oscar Wao, Lahiri…Yes, I’m drooling. Don’t judge.
3)      Approaches to English Studies: I’ve never taught our gateway-for-majors course before, although I’ve taught grad lit theory many times and plan to use many of the same overall strategies (at an undergrad level of course). But more than the content, what really excites me about this course is the chance to work with a cohort of English Studies Majors at the outset of their time in the department, and help get them started on the best possible foot.
4)      American Literature I: The only course I’ve taught as frequently as Am Lit II is, shockingly, Am Lit I. But this will be the first time in two years that I’ve done so, and I’m excited to introduce a new group to Cabeza de Vaca’s amazing narrative, John Smith’s stunning third-person mythmaking, Judith Sargent Murray’s and Olaudah Equiano’s Revolutionary lives and voices, the single best chapter in ante-bellum American fiction, and much else besides.
5)      First-Year Writing I: It’s been four years since I taught first-year writing (for reasons related to the topics of these two posts), and I’m beyond thrilled to have the chance to do so again. Does it hurt that I teach close reading through a unit on song lyrics, and so get to spend some class time analyzing “The River”? No, no it doesn’t. But beyond even Bruce, the fact is that no class allows for a closer connection to students—to their writing, yes, but also their voices and perspectives and goals—than does this one. Seeing former Writing students graduate remains one of my favorite teaching experiences, and I can’t wait to meet this new batch!
A lot to look forward to! Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What are you looking forward to this fall (or summer) (or any other time)?

Friday, May 17, 2013

May 17, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part Five

[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On a very important rejoinder, or at least complement, to yesterday’s post.
If Capstone provided one set of inspiring voices for me this spring, my group of ALFA (Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area) students provided another, equally inspiring community with which I was deeply fortunate to be able to work. Moreover, if my inspiring soon-to-be-graduates make me at times frustrated with the state of the nation and world, the ALFA students—a group of 10 women in their late 50s and above—make clear that no one generation has a monopoly on impressiveness, and that the world is as full of goodness as it is of problems. They had amazing thoughts on the five contemporary short stories we read and discussed—but they also of course had a great deal more to say, and I wanted to highlight just two of those conversations here.
Many of the students are retired teachers, and their experiences in the classroom came up on numerous occasions during our five discussions. But it was before our final discussion that a couple of the students shared a particularly interesting and inspiring idea: the creation of an Education Museum, perhaps housed at or at least connected to Fitchburg State (which began as a Normal School and remains one of the state’s premiere trainers of young educators). As these students argued, our increasingly digital and online world can make it hard to connect to the histories and materials that comprise the last century (and more) of public education in America—which makes it that much more important that we try to find ways to create such connections. I’m honored to be talking about this particular idea with these folks!
Perhaps the most important thing I can say about teaching an ALFA class, though—and the most important rejoinder to any sense, in this series overall or in yesterday’s post in particular, that I have the answers and am just passing them along to students—is how much I learned from each and every student in it. Learned not only about education, life, America, the world, but also about the course’s specific topic and focus, as I got a ton of great reading and author recommendations. Also on the last day, for example, one of the students brought in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review in which a ton of up-and-coming new authors are featured, most of which I haven’t yet heard of. Which is to say, of the countless reasons I love teaching ALFA courses, none is more crucial than the reminder of how much I still have to learn.
Forward-looking post this weekend,
Ben
PS. Spring semester experiences you’d share?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

May 16, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part Four

[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On idealism, realism, and my students’ futures.
There are a lot of great things about teaching the English Studies Senior Capstone, chief among them the opportunity to read senior portfolios and be reinforced in my sense of the diversity and impressiveness of our English Majors. But as I wrote in that linked post, the Capstone (at least as I teach it) is just as much about the future as about the past, about where the students might go next and how the course and community and I can help them move forward toward those possible futures. We do various practical work in that regard, drafting resumes and cover letters and grad application personal statements and the like, and that feels meaningful and productive. But I have to admit that I end this semester no surer than I was in that post that I’ve addressed their broader worries or concerns about the future.
If anything, I would say that many of our discussions, prompted by the particular readings I had chosen, led precisely to at best realistic (and at worst pessimistic) engagements with the difficulties of making a career as a professional writer (Zinsser’s On Writing Well), a creative writer (King’s On Writing), or a teacher (Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System). It’d be crazy of me to try to discourage such realism, or to pretend that any of those careers, or any of the related ones that my students are considering—or, frankly, any others right now—don’t entail substantial uncertainties and challenges and pitfalls and obstacles. I can and did suggest all the different ways I think they can maximize their materials and chances, can take positive steps, can take what control is possible of their own futures. But again, those positives were often not the focus of our discussions—and it’s impossible for me to blame them for their worries.
So how to reconcile my idealism about my students and their voices and work with this realism about the world into which they’re moving? Truth be told, I don’t know. I have a lot of faith in them, but not a lot of faith in that world right now, particularly not when it comes to the idea of good things happening to good people. Teaching Capstone has, ironically, amplified both feelings—I’ve never felt better about this community of young Americans, specific to Fitchburg State but also in general, than I do; but I’ve also never been less certain about what they have in front of them (and, I’ll admit, what my sons have in front of them in another decade or so). I wish it felt as if my generation was doing more to make that world better for these subsequent generations—but I guess one place I feel I am doing my part is in the classroom, helping prepare these communities for their opportunity to do their part.
Final semester conclusion tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May 15, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part Three


[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On the many sides to the defining role that crosses all cultural and national borders.
For the first two identities about which we read in my Ethnic American Literature course, the absence of their mothers served as a tragic introduction to the world’s darkest sides. Frederick Douglass opens his Narrative (1845) with the heartbreaking story of his only experiences with his mother (before her very early death), when she would walk for miles from the plantation to which she had been sold in order to lie quietly beside him for a time at night. Richard Wright opens Black Boy (1945) with a scene in which his mother beats him brutally, but I’m thinking even more about the later section where Wright describes her extended illness as his fullest introduction to the world’s overarching brutalities. For both men, these separations from their mothers could be read as intimate reflections of the social worlds—slavery and segregation—into which they had been born.
The course’s next two narrators, Mary Doyle Curran’s fictional Mary O’Connor and Michael Patrick MacDonald’s autobiographical Michael, are born into social struggles of their own; but for these two, their mothers provide instead powerful presences and groundings within those shifting and potentially threatening worlds. Mary ends the introductory first chapter by noting how much her mother’s voice and presence have stayed with her, despite a third-generation Irish American life that has taken her far away from her mother’s house. For Michael and his many siblings, the steady and strong presence of their Ma quite literally guides them through the Southie of Whitey Bulger, the busing riots, the crack epidemic, and the endemic violence against which Michael’s life and work become (in honor of his mother and all the neighborhood’s mothers) an activist protest.
One of the course’s culminating two novels, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), comprises to my mind the most extended and effective portrayal of mother-daughter relationships in all of American literature. Much of Tan’s focus seems specific to the Chinese American experiences, issues, and conflicts embodied by her immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. But when we pair Tan’s book with the course’s other culminating novel, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1993), we see just how much such multi-generational American families and stories are defined by strong maternal influences—Erdrich’s Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine are two hugely complex women in their own right, but taken together they produce and embody the worst and best of the novel’s Chippewa American communities—and in the book’s beautiful final images, Marie’s adopted daughter June Kasphaw becomes a defining maternal presence for her son Lipsha and another generation.
Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Literary mothers you’d highlight?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May 14, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part Two

[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On three perfect examples of how student voices and ideas keep me moving forward.
Along with the longer and more developed papers, my American Literature II course includes a couple of shorter and more creative exercises, offering (I hope) different ways for students to connect to and analyze particular readings. In the second, I ask them to pick any character other than the protagonist in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand or Passing (we read both) and to imagine that character’s perspective on that protagonist (since Larsen gives us only the protagonists’ perspectives on everyone else). The creative exercises always produce some of my favorite work of the semester, but this time students made particularly original and effective choices, with these three at the top of the list:
1)      One student created the perspective of God (!) on Quicksand’s Helga Crane. As she wrote, religion plays a central and complex role throughout the novella, leading up to its crucial influence in Helga’s final setting and role. But the choice also allowed this student to consider questions of free will and fate—and thus of how much responsibility Helga bears for her decisions and life—in a truly striking way.
2)      Another student created the perspective of the cab driver who picks up Irene Redfield in the opening scene of Passing. This profoundly minor character appears for only a few paragraphs, but this student did a wonderful job considering how much the cabbie helps introduce themes of social perception and identification that permeate every moment of the novella. And he managed to imagine the voice of a 1920s Chicago cabbie pitch-perfectly to boot!
3)      A third student worked with the same opening scene of Passing, but created instead the perspective of another very minor character—the unnamed man who escorts Clare Kendry to the rooftop restaurant where she unexpectedly reunites with Irene. All we ever know of this man is that he’s not Clare’s husband and yet seems intimately connected to her—but as this student highlighted, that’s more than enough to introduce key aspects of Clare’s situation and character, and to foreshadow one of the novella’s climactic revelations.
I learned a great deal from these exercises, and from so many of my students’ voices and ideas, this semester as every semester. Works for me! Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Student work you’d highlight?

Monday, May 13, 2013

May 13, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part One

[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On mixture, identity, and performance across the American literary landscape.
I have both professional and personal stakes in a heightened national awareness of and engagement with racial and cultural mixture, as I wrote in this follow-up to my second book. But what really hit me for the first time this semester, as my American Literature II (1865-present) sections moved through our syllabus, is just how many of my favorite American novels focus on characters engaging with their own mixed heritages: Janet Miller in The Marrow of Tradition, Helga Crane in Quicksand (and more subtly Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry in Passing), and Tayo in Ceremony are all centrally connected to that kind of cross-cultural identity and experience.
Moreover, because my Am Lit II syllabus pairs those works with another text from their respective eras, I also thought a great deal this semester about the ways in which other, more seemingly culturally unified American identities include their share of mixture as well. Huck Finn, for example, is (at least by his novel’s end) a mixture of Pap, Tom Sawyer, and Jim; Jay Gatsby is a mixture of that self-constructed identity with James Gatz, the identity into which he was born; Gogol Ganguli mixes his parents’ Bengali immigrant identities with his own evolving ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) status. I’m not trying to equate any or all of these characters—in the cases of Huck and Gatsby, at least, I would argue that their white privilege allows them to choose when and how to perform in a way that differentiates them from the others—but I saw, and appreciated, the parallels this spring.
Appreciating those parallels also allows us to consider just how much any American identity, whatever its internal elements, comprises at the same time an external performance. Gatsby, of course, literally performs that identity, with James Gatz always lurking somewhere underneath; but so too for example does Gogol perform the identity of Nikhil, to which he legally changes his name the summer before college (but which Lahiri’s narrator never calls him). Huck is constantly performing various identities (as a girl to gain information, as a fictional boy to navigate the feuding families, as Tom Sawyer in the closing section) in order to survive, but so too does Tayo perform ceremonies—both more traditional Laguna Pueblo rituals and Betonie’s more mixed ones—in order to bridge the different sides to his heritage and experiences. Which is to say: when the speaker of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (which we also read in Am Lit II) describes her life and death as “an art, like everything else,” she’s damn right.
Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?