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Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 31, 2013: Symbolic Scares: The Lost Boys

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Add your spooooooky thoughts, please!]
On mindless pop entertainment, and what it can still symbolize.
Roger Ebert wrote of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987) that it ends up devoid of anything deep or lasting, becoming “just technique at the service of formula”—and as usual, Rog was right on point. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything else of a film that stars both of the ‘80s Coreys (Haim and Feldman), each in his own way a symbol of the decade’s tendency toward style over substance. Certainly hindsight should clarify for us just how much “style over substance” seems to define Joel Schumacher’s directorial mantra. But in any case, the salient question about The Lost Boys isn’t whether there’s any there there—it’s why on earth I’m writing about it in this series and this space when there so clearly isn’t.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to make the case for hidden depths to the film—I like the “and yet” second paragraph transition as much as anybody, but it has its limits. But what kind of AmericanStudier would I be if I couldn’t find cultural symbolism in even the most vapid pop entertainments? For one thing, I think it’s possible to see The Lost Boys as originating—or at least representing a very early example of—one of the most significant cultural trends of the last couple decades: turning vampires into sexy, cool teenage icons. Vampires have been alluring since at least Dracula, of course; but when it comes to Angel, Edward, the cast of the Vampire Diaries, and so many other teen-demographic forces on our recent cultural landscape, I think Kiefer Sutherland and his fellow Lost Boys might have really gotten the ball rolling. Which, given the momentum that ball now possesses, would make Schumacher’s film pretty darn influential.
But I also don’t think we have to look into the subsequent decades to find significant symbolic value to The Lost Boys. I’m pretty sure that Schumacher didn’t think about it on this level—and I don’t even know that the trio of screenwriters can be credited with any part of this insight—but the film seems to me to reflect a significant and interesting cultural tension in its portrayals of the era’s titular young men. On the one hand, Kiefer and his fellow vampires are pretty much pure evil, young punks whose appearance and affect precisely parallel their darkest intentions. But on the other hand, protagonist Jason Patric is drawn to the vampires because he’s quite a bit like them in every way—and he and his younger brother (Haim), the sons of an overworked and somewhat absentee single mother, seem scarcely less lost than the vampires they end up fighting (with the help of a couple of similarly wayward boys, including Feldman’s character). So are the lost boys villains or heroes, a threat to their small towns or the saviors of those places? They seem, in this slight yet symbolic film, to be both and all of those things.
Next scary story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 30, 2013: Symbolic Scares: Last House on the Left

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Add your spooooooky thoughts, please!]
On the horror film that’s more disturbing in what it makes us cheer for than how it makes us scream.
The Last House on the Left (1972) was Wes Craven’s directorial debut, as well as one of the only films that he wrote and edited as well as directed (although it was at least partly based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring [1960], as Craven has admitted). But despite launching one of the late 20th century’s most significant horror talents, Last House is far less well known than Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series, or even (I would argue) his other prominent early film, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Partly that’s because Last House feels extremely raw in execution, the product of a talent still figuring out much of what he could do; but partly it’s because it also feels raw in another and more troubling way, one that makes us more deeply uncomfortable than horror films generally do.
That rawness is most obviously comprised by the extended and very graphic abduction, rape, and murder sequence that opens the film—a sequence that feels less like horror than like cinema verité of an extremely disturbing kind. But even more raw, both in its emotional brutality and in the places it takes the audience, is the film’s culminating sequence, in which the killers find themselves in the home of the parents of one of the murdered girls—and the audience finds itself rooting for those parents to take the bloodiest and most violent revenge possible on these psychopaths. I suppose it’s possible to argue that we’re not meant to root in that way, or that we’re meant to feel conflicted about these ordinary and good people turning into vengeful monsters—but to be honest, any audience that has watched the film’s opening seems to me to be primed instead to cheer as the killers get their violent comeuppance, even—perhaps especially—if it requires this transformation of grieving parents into their own terrifying kind of killers.
To be clear, if we do find ourselves cheering for the parents, we’re doing so not just because of how Craven’s film has guided us there. We’re also taking the next step in what I called, in this post on the comic book hero The Punisher, the long history of vigilante heroes in American culture; and perhaps at the same time living vicariously the most potent (if extra-legal) arguments for the death penalty. Yet the rawness of Craven’s film, whether intended or simply a result of its stage in his career, serves one additional and crucial symbolic purpose: it reminds us that vigilante justice and executions, however deserved they might feel, are also grotesque and horrifying, as difficult to watch as they are to justify when the heat of the moment has cooled off. Last House is scarier for what it reveals in ourselves than for anything that’s on screen—but what’s on screen can also help us examine that side of ourselves honestly, and that’s a pretty important effect.
Next scary story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October 29, 2013: Symbolic Scares: Sleepy Hollow

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Add your spooooooky thoughts, please!]
On the original American scary story that’s also an ironic American origin story.
I haven’t had a chance yet to catch any of the new Sleepy Hollow TV show—if you have, please feel free to share your thoughts in comments!—but it’s certainly further proof of the lasting influence of one of America’s earliest professional writers, Washington Irving. Certainly much of Irving’s extensive body of work, including the History of New York about which I wrote in that post, has largely vanished from our collective national consciousness; but two of the stories in his first collection of fiction, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), have endured across those nearly two hundred years about as fully as any American literary works (from any century) have. I’m referring of course to that hen-pecked sleeper Rip Van Winkle and to the focus of today’s post, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
“Sleepy Hollow” has endured because at its heart, as the new TV show seems (from its previews anyway) to understand, it is about a simple conflict that is at the heart of many scary stories: between an extremely ordinary everyman (awkward and shy schoolteacher Ichabod Crane) and an equally extraordinary supernatural foe (the terrifying Headless Horseman). Like many scary story protagonists, Ichabod has an idealized love interest, the buxon Katrina Von Tassel; and finds himself competing for her affections with a far more popular and confident rival, Brom Bones. The culminating intersection between the two plotlines—between Ichabod’s supernatural and romantic encounters—engages the audience on multiple emotional levels simultaneously, just as so many contemporary horror films strive to do. Indeed, the only significant divergence from the now well-established formula is that the everyman hero loses—the Horseman scares Ichabod Crane away, Brom Bones escorts Katrina Von Tassel to the altar, and Ichabod’s story becomes the stuff of local legend.
That resolution lessens the story’s scariness factor (it seems clear that Brom was masquerading as the Headless Horseman), but at the same time amplifies its status as an originating American folktale. For one thing, Irving’s fictional narrator and historian Diedrich Knickerbocker presents Ichabod’s story, like Rip Van Winkle’s, as precisely such a folktale, a part of the collective memory of his turn of the 19th century Dutch New York and thus of Early Republic America more broadly. And for another, it’s possible to read Brom Bones’ triumph, and his resulting union with the town’s powerful Von Tassel family, as an ironic reminder—much like Rip’s concluding images—that the more things seem to have changed in this post-Revolutionary America, the more in at least some ways they have stayed the same. America’s landed elites maintain their power, manipulating our folk legends (even our scary stories) to do so—and our overly ambitious schoolteachers flee in terror before that social force, remembered simply as a funny and telling part of those stories.
Next scary story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Monday, October 28, 2013

October 28, 2013: Symbolic Scares: The Wendigo

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Add your spooooooky thoughts, please!]
On the supernatural legend that also offers cultural and cross-cultural commentaries.
I’m not sure what kind of collection it was—whether it was an anthology of folk tales, of scary stories, of cultural myths and legends, of Americana—but I do know that only one story from it impacted this young AmericanStudier enough to stick with me nearly three decades later: an account of a party of hunters in rural Canada encountering the demon known as the Wendigo. I can even remember the way I felt inside when my Dad read the lines about the rising and howling wind, which at least in this version of the tale signaled the imminent arrival of—or perhaps even contained—the creature. Let’s just say that, unlike the boy who left home to find out about the shivers, from then on I knew exactly what that condition felt like, and didn’t need to venture outside of the pages of that very scary story to do so.
So I’m here to tell you that the Wendigo is, first and foremost, a deeply effective scary story. But the creature and story, across their many versions, also offer complex and compelling lenses into American cultures, on two distinct and equally meaningful levels. For one thing, apparently Wendigo stories can be found in the belief systems and communal myths of numerous Algonquin-speaking native tribes across both the United States and Canada, including the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Naskapi, and others. While those tribes share a basic language system, they are as culturally and socially distinct as they are geographically widespread—and yet they share closely parallel images and accounts of these cannibalistic demons of the woods. While we have to be careful about how we read such potentially but ambiguously symbolic shared mythic figures—Joseph Campbell-like, sweeping structuralist pronouncements being largely discredited these days—there seems to be no question that the Wendigo represents a part of the collective identity and perspective of these tribes.
But as they have evolved, Wendigo stories have also come to represent something else, and perhaps even more telling: tales of the perils of cross-cultural exploration and exploitation. That is, in many of the last century’s Wendigo tales, including both the Blackwood one linked above and the one that I remember from my childhood, those being threatened or destroyed by the creature tend to be non-native hunters, often if not always venturing into native territories, encroaching on previously protected or sacred spaces, or otherwise seeking to make their mark on a land not quite their own. Weird Tales such as Blackwood’s often highlight the dangers posed by an sort of spiritual boundary-crossing, so this particular trend is certainly not unique; but in these cases, I’m arguing, the boundaries being crossed are not only spiritual but also, and perhaps more importantly, cultural. Which is to say, while the Wendigo has always been cannibalistic, the particular identity of those upon whom he feasts has significantly, and symbolically, shifted over time.
Next scary story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

October 26-27, 2013: Book Talks to Come

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
To round off the series, a handful of upcoming talks and one reason (among many) why I’m excited for each:
1)      Waltham Public Library, Tuesday, November 5th: That’s right, I’ll be spending part of Election Day 2013 speaking in my new hometown, one of the hubs of immigration history in Massachusetts. Can’t beat that with a stick!
2)      Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Thursday, November 21st: I’m not sure I can adequately express the power of giving a talk on Martha’s Vineyard, and in a place so fully associated with my grandfather Art Railton to boot. Let’s just say, yowza.
3)      Wilfred Laurier University, Thursday, January 29th: The first of a couple international talks in the new year, this one (along with another possible Toronto-area talk or two) will force me to think about how the Canadian Exclusion Act relates to my focal points. Can’t wait!
4)      University of Sunderland, Thursday, February 6th: From Canada to the mother country across the pond, where I’ll be participating in a Race in the Americas (RITA) seminar on race and the U.S. Constitution. I promise I won’t become an EnglishStudier, but I might have to do a Britney accent for a while. Consider yourselves warned.
5)      Plimoth Plantation, TBA, April 2014: My year of talks will perhaps wrap up (although I’m always open to new opportunities!) with a chance to share my book as part of Plimoth’s Lunch and Learn series. I won’t pretend like I’m from the 1620s—but I will definitely be inspired by the legacies of Bradford, Tisquantum, and more!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, October 25, 2013

October 25, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: Next up, San Fran!

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On the one reason I’m most especially excited for my next talk, my first on the left coast.
On Saturday November 2nd at 2:30pm, I’ll be talking about my book in the San Francisco Public Library’s Chinatown Branch. The talk is exciting to me for a lot of reasons, including my first chance to talk about the project in the region/state where the majority of 19th century Chinese immigrants first arrived, as well as a chance to hear and learn from the perspectives and experiences of a community that includes many contemporary Chinese Americans (across all different generations and stages of the immigrant experience) among numerous other groups. (If you live in or near the Bay Area, I hope you’ll consider coming ou and adding your voice to that conversation!) But I have to admit that I’m most excited about one very specific possibility for the talk.
To put it simply, I hope to be able to say, when I get to the focus on inspiring American voices, identities, and stories that comprises the third section of the talk, some version of this sentence: “As I stood earlier today in front of the Angel Island poems…” Can’t really imagine a better way to start a day that will feature a book talk than with a trip out to Angel Island, and I’m beyond excited to have the chance to do just that in just over a week. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Even more forward-looking weekend post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

October 24, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: Harrisburg

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On the importance and power of audiences, both captive and really really not.
While I was down in Harrisburg this past weekend for the NeMLA Board meeting, I had the chance to give two books talks in two hugely different spaces. At Penn State Harrisburg, I was able to talk about the book with students in an Asian American Studies course that’s part of the university’s wonderful American Studies program, as well as with grad students and faculty like Jamie Hirami and John Haddad (who both helped set up the talk). And a day later, I talked about the book at Harrisburg’s unique and wonderful Midtown Scholar Bookstore, one of the nation’s best independent and used bookstores. Once again I got a lot out of both experiences, but here I want to use them to think about two kinds of audiences at opposite ends of a particular spectrum, and the challenges and benefits that each offer for such presentations.
At the Penn State talk, the majority of the audience was comprised of those students in Jamie’s class, and thus the audience was explicitly captive—both because she had asked them to be there and because they had to pay enough attention to my talk in order to discuss it in subsequent class conversations. For me, the central challenge in talking to such an audience is thus to create a talk that (hopefully) makes them happy to be there, both in the knowledge and perspectives it adds to their world and in a delivery and performance that make those histories, stories, and ideas as engaging and compelling as possible. Besides being great practice for doing the same in my teaching, I would say that these kinds of talks are also wonderful reminders of the importance of stories, narratives, and frames for even the most scholarly or analytical focal points—because if we can’t communicate those focal points to our audiences, and do so in a way that makes them want to listen and engage and respond, then it won’t much matter what we have to say.
At the Midtown Scholar talk, I found myself dealing with similar questions but from a very different perspective. The talk had unfortunately not been broadly publicized, and so while there were a decent number of people in the audience, I’m not sure that many (or perhaps even any) of them had come specifically to hear me talk. That made them the exact opposite of a captive audience, since if anything I was potentially interrupting their reading, browsing, chatting, coffee drinking, working, and so on—and thus if I didn’t get and keep them interested, they were likely to get up and move or leave within a short period of time. I can’t lie (not to you, blog readers!), some of them did just that. But some others stayed, and when the talk was done and I was sitting at an info table, each of them eventually came up to me, chatted a bit, shared their own perspectives, and in a few cases asked me to email them an e-copy of the book (an offer that extends to you as well! email brailton@fitchburgstate.edu if you’d like one). And I have to say, being forced to make such connections without any starting point, based purely on what I had to say and how I communicated it, was both incredibly scary and even more incredibly inspiring.
A few hopes for my next talk tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

October 23, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: URI Diversity Week

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On two panel conversations that challenged and strengthened my ideas, in two very different ways.
Earlier this month, I was honored to take part in the University of Rhode Island’s 17th annual Diversity Week, and more exactly to be able to give my book talk as part of a day of events coordinated by my New England ASA colleague and good friend Nancy Caronia. Talking about immigration and diversity in one of the nation’s oldest university Multicultural Centers was an exciting and profoundly inspiring experience, and a good reminder for me of why academic as well as public spaces and conversations are important places to share this kind of public scholarly project. And moreover, before I gave my talk I had the chance to hear two distinct and equally potent panel discussions, each of which forced me to think about my own project from additional and crucial angles.
The first panel featured seven URI community members—a mix of undergrads, graduate students, and faculty members—sharing some of their experiences with and perspectives on diversity. Each story was compelling and affecting; together the panel was almost too much to hear and process at one time, in the best of senses. But among my many takeaways, I was struck by a shared idea that represents a complex challenge to one of my book’s central arguments: at least a few of the speakers discussed ways in which the United States is perhaps less tolerant of diversity than other nations, a direct challenge to my second chapter’s argument that we have been defined by diversity since our origin points. Hearing this perspective has, along with other responses I’ve gotten at my book talks, helped me begin to develop an idea that America has been always defined by a multi-layered conflict between inclusive and exclusive attitudes, between a communal openness to such diversity and a concurrent set of fears, prejudices, and legal and social discriminations toward it.
The second panel, organized directly by Nancy, featured four Native American speakers, powerful voices who were both responding to the university’s Common Read (Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing) and sharing some of their more overarching perspectives and identities.  Once again, I was impacted in many ways by each speaker and by the foursome overall, but will focus here on one complex and important challenge to my book that their talks highlighted for me. To put it bluntly, in order to focus on the foundational multi-national diversity that I see as largely absent from our national narratives, I almost entirely elide either Native American or African American communities and identities. Since much of my Redefining American Identity focused centrally on those communities, I’m certainly not suggesting that I don’t see them as central to our national community; but nonetheless, their absence from this book is troubling for me to think about. That’s perhaps especially true because this book ultimately argues for inspiring American histories and stories—and of course it’s fair to say that it’s easier to be inspired if we leave out slavery, Native American genocide, and all the related histories and issues. I don’t want to leave them out, though, and this panel reminded me that as I move forward I’ll need to find ways to bring my different book focuses together.
Next talk tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 22, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: U of Maine

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On two very distinct and equally compelling connections in the Pine Tree State, and what they helped me to see.
One of the most exciting and largely unanticipated side effects of my book talks has been how much they’ve helped me connect to people and places with which I might not otherwise have gotten in contact, and from which I’ve already learned so much. The Museum of the Chinese in America about which I wrote yesterday represents one type of connection, but so do the many academic institutions and colleagues with which I’ve been fortunate enough to share the book. In one trip up to my northern neighbors at the University of Maine, I was able to make two distinct and equally beneficial kinds of connections: to an AmericanStudies colleague whose class offered new perspectives on the discipline; and to an inspiring scholarly space that helped me think of my project in an entirely new light.
The colleague, who helped bring me to the university and set up both events, is Sarah Hentges, who teaches American Studies and a ton of other interdisciplinary stuff at U of Maine, and who has published multiple interesting American Studies books. I had the opportunity to talk to, and then participate in a discussion on Manning Marable’s Living Black History with, the students in Sarah’s Introduction to American Studies course, and the experience was inspiring and envigorating on a number of levels. I would particularly highlight the way in which the students, mostly I believe local kids from northern Maine, brought their own identities and perspectives to bear on not only Marable’s book, but also core AmericanStudies questions and themes, such as how and why we should remember our most complex and challenging national histories. With Sarah as their guide, these students are charting their own path into AmericanStudies, and it was exciting to share a couple hours with them as they did so.
Earlier in the same day, I got to give my book talk at a truly unique space on the U of Maine Augusta campus: the Holocaust and Human Rights Center (HHRC) of Maine. The HHRC was created thanks to an endowment from a local resident who also happens to be a Holocaust survivor, and from its design to its exhibits, the building continually took me by surprise during my too-brief time there. I was particularly struck by one wall on which the words of Holocaust survivors had been written, eerily paralleling my talk’s focus on the Angel Island poetry. I don’t mean to equate Angel Island, or any American experience, to the Holocaust—such equations aren’t of much use in either direction—but of course the principle of a center dedicated to the Holocaust and human rights is that there are issues which transcend any event, even the most horrific ones, and become broader questions and conversations to which all people are connected. Talking about my book at the HHRC helped me to imagine how my focal histories and stories might link with such questions as well, a provocative and potent frame with which I’m still grappling weeks later.
Next talk follow up tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, October 21, 2013

October 21, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: MOCA

[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On the unbelievably ideal and inspiring site for my first public book talk.
I got to talk about the Angel Island poetry next door to a full-size recreation of an Angel Island wall, complete with a transcribed poem carved in the wood. I got to discuss some of the stories and histories of Yung Wing and his Chinese Educational Mission just a few feet away from a monitor playing a compelling short film about Yung’s life and the school he founded. I got to analyze the rise of the Yellow Peril narrative while asking my audience to follow up the talk by examining the large collection of salient political and social materials exhibited across the room. And I got to share the stage and event with the talented and dynamic Karen Shepard, whose The Celestials (2013) is without question one of the couple most significant literary engagements with 19th century Chinese and Asian American identity, community, and history yet written.
So yeah, my September book talk at New York’s Museum of the Chinese in America, as part of the debut of the museum’s new MOCACitizen series, was truly pitch-perfect. If you live in or near New York, or have the chance to visit the city at any point, I can’t recommend the museum strongly enough—it’s a truly unique and exciting space, and features not only the standing exhibit to which my above details refer but an ongoing collection of rotating exhibits that promise to extend such foundational historical and cultural questions and themes to various compelling and contemporary issues and conversations (see for example the current exhibitions on the “new woman” in mid-20th century Shanghai and on 21st century Chinese American designers). The museum is a model 21st century historic, cultural, and educational site, and I look forward to future visits, events, and connections there.
Talking about my book at MOCA also forced me to think more deeply about a balance I’m still working out, both in these particular talks and in my ongoing public AmericanStudies scholarship: the balance between doing specific justice to the details and complexities of particular histories and stories (such as those of 19th century Chinese Americans, in this case) and making broader connections to national narratives and conversations (such as those of immigration laws and diversity, in this case). My instinct is always to move toward the latter connections, since they’re the ones that involve and impact all Americans, and thus (I would argue) the most significant stakes of my work. But on the other hand, it’s the specific histories and stories that we so often don’t know, and without which the broader conversation would feel as decontextualized and empty as would the museum space without all its exhibits and materials. So MOCA inspired me to keep focusing on what goes on the walls as much as on the communal space I hope to help us build out of those foundations.
Next talk follow up tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

October 19-20, 2013: Northeast MLA Excitement!

This weekend, I’ll be in Harrisburg with my fellow NeMLA Executive Board members, planning next spring’s conference (as well as giving two book talks, on which more next week!). So for this weekend post, I wanted to highlight three things I’m looking forward to at that conference, and two more for my own 2016 conference in Hartford. If you want to get involved with NeMLA—for the 2014 conference, for the longer term, or in any other way—please let me know!
1)      My Panels: I’ve had the great opportunity to put together and chair three panels at the 2014 conference: one right in my scholarly wheelhouse, on literary and cultural images of the river in America; and two roundtables on vital 21st century topics about which I have as much to learn as anyone: the place of classical tradition in the digital writing classroom; and how an organization like NeMLA can better serve adjunct and contingent faculty members. I can’t wait for all three conversations!
2)      George Saunders: For many years, thanks to those two future AmericanStudiers pictured above, I’ve had to dart in and out of conferences, rarely able to stay for much beyond my own panels or events. But as the NeMLA 2nd VP, I’ll be staying for the whole of the 2014 conference, and that means I’ll get to attend the Thursday evening reading that opens the conference—a reading that happens to feature one of the contemporary writers whose work I’m most anxious to learn more about, George Saunders!
3)      Exploring the City: Like many Americans cities these days, Harrisburg has had its well-publicized recent struggles; but it’s also one of the most historic American spaces, and one for which, I’m quite sure, the narratives of decline don’t begin to tell the whole story. So for past and present reasons, and as am AmericanStudier who takes a great deal away from every place I visit, I can’t wait to spend some time getting to know Harrisburg.
4)      Hartford Community Connections: I’ve written before in this space about one of my central goals for my 2016 NeMLA conference—to find ways to connect the conference to the city, not just in terms of daytrips or the like but also through genuine and hopefully lasting efforts to contribute in at least small ways to the community hosting our gathering. Like Harrisburg, Hartford has had its share of struggles, and is working to rebuild and rebound—but I also worry that such efforts tend to focus more on the commercial and tourism and less on the area toward which I hope I can focus NeMLA’s efforts: the public school system. Any thoughts on particular ways we could focus those efforts would be much appreciated!
5)      Hartford and the CEM: I’m also very interested in Hartford’s past, and most especially in one particularly under-remembered part of that history: the decade or so during which Hartford hosted Yung Wing’s Chinese Educational Mission. One of my public scholarly dreams is to help create a historic site dedicated to the CEM, which was one of the most unique yet also exemplary spaces and ideas in American history. And what better time to think about such efforts than while I plan a conference to be held in the CEM’s host city? Again, any and all thoughts and suggestions on how to raise awareness for this kind of historic, cultural site in a community would be very welcome!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. NeMLA connections you’d share?  Other organizations or conferences you’d highlight?

Friday, October 18, 2013

October 18, 2013: John Sayles’ America: Five Runners-Up

[I’ve already blogged quite a lot about John Sayles. A whole lot, in fact. But when it comes to the filmmaker who to my mind has most consistently engaged with AmericanStudies questions, there’s plenty more to say. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five more Sayles films. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these films and others that say AmericanStudies to you!]
Okay, so I lied about only focusing on five films this week. When you’re dealing with an abundance of riches, sometimes you have to share the wealth, y’know? So to round out the Sayles series, here are briefer AmericanStudies takes on five more films (not covered either in those above links or earlier in the week—what can I say, the man has had quite a career!):
1)      Lianna (1983): Sayles’ second film was way ahead of its time, dealing with issues of gay identity and community in America long before those were comfortable topics for communal conversation. That it’s far more in the quiet character-study vein than the overt political-statement one is also to its credit.
2)      Limbo (1999): I’ll freely admit that this follow-up to Lone Star (my favorite Sayles film) and Men with Guns really irritated me due to its extremely open-ended ending (guess I should have thought about the title more). But in retrospect, that ending, and much else in the film, fits perfectly with its overall depiction of characters, place, and moment all caught in between past and future, and unsure of what’s next.
3)      Sunshine State (2002): You can’t tell the story of 21st century America without thinking about themes of development—economic and environmental, geographic and communal, urban and suburban. I don’t know of any film that better addresses those issues, while still creating characters as rich and interesting as in any Sayles movie. Plus Timothy Hutton!
4)      Casa de los Babys (2003): Similarly, I don’t know of too many American films that address our complex contemporary relationship to Latin America—and this story of a group of women waiting to adopt orphaned babies in an unnamed Latin American city does so very well, while maximizing the talents of its six female stars.
5)      Honeydripper (2007): One of Sayles’ more genuinely historical films (ie, not just about the past, but set in it), this portrayal of the Jim Crow South at the intersection of blues and rock and roll manages to avoid nearly all the obvious racial or social cliches in favor of a more unique and compelling story of tradition, change, and their complex interplay in mid-20th century America.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other films you’d especially AmericanStudy?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

October 17, 2013: John Sayles’ America: Passion and Home

[I’ve already blogged quite a lot about John Sayles. A whole lot, in fact. But when it comes to the filmmaker who to my mind has most consistently engaged with AmericanStudies questions, there’s plenty more to say. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five more Sayles films. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these films and others that say AmericanStudies to you!]
On whether you can go home again, and why it makes for a great story in any case.
I haven’t studied the statistics, so I can’t say for sure that this isn’t one of those overstated narratives of historical change (such as those about divorce as an entirely new concept), but it seems clear to me that one of the biggest shifts in American society and life over the last century or so has been the dramatically increased number of people who move away from the place where they’re born in the course of their own lives. The possibility has of course always been there, as evidenced by figures as diverse as Ben Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Robin Molineux, and Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber. But while those figures were portrayed in their respective eras and texts as at least somewhat of an aberration, here in the 21st century I’d say (again, without having stats in front of me) that a majority of Americans leave their hometown, and at least that such movement is now a widely shared, if not indeed defining, national experience.
There would be lots of ways to analyze that experience, to consider what it might mean for our identities (individual and communal). But one particularly interesting question that jumps out for me is what such movement would mean for our visions of “home”—whether, for example, home becomes something in our past, a place we come from but out of which we have to move as we make our own way; and, concurrently, whether it is indeed the case that, within such a vision of home, “You can’t go home again” (Thomas Wolfe was one of our most astute literary chroniclers of such questions, in the era when this experience of movement was first becoming widely possible). Given that we now live in a moment when significant numbers of young people are moving back into their childhood homes—nearly a quarter of adults between 18 and 34 have done so, according to the 2010 census—it’s of course not at all literally the case that you can’t go home again. But in an era when such moves away had (I’m arguing) been the norm, perhaps even the expectation, returning home becomes at least a complex and fraught endeavor.
Passion Fish (1992) is one of John Sayles’ quieter films, a character study of a woman who is forced to go home again (Mary McDonnell as a soap opera star who is permanently paralyzed by an accident and returns to her Louisiana home to recover and/or drink herself to death) and how her second life in that place unfolds (in complex conjuction with the unfolding life of her nurse [Alfre Woodard], who is on the run from her own home and identity). Since this is the opposite of one of Sayles’ political films, we get no definitive statements about his themes here, nor even any particular climax or resolution; instead, the film is an extended, often funny, and ultimately deeply moving meditation on these questions of identity and community, home and escape, past and future. And since those questions have no definitive answers or resolutions—not for any of the individuals dealing with them in their own lives, and certainly not for a nation and society for which they are now a prominent part of who we are—that makes Sayles’ film a pitch-perfect representation of and engagement with late 20th and early 21st century America.
Next film tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other films you’d especially AmericanStudy?