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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December 31, 2014: End of Year Stories: The Immigration Debate

[While I don’t consistently cover current events in this space, I do try when I can to connect the histories, stories, and issues on which I focus to our contemporary moment. But sometimes it’s important to flip that script, and to contextualize some of those contemporary connections. So this week, I’ll do that with five ongoing American stories. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on them and on any other current stories!]
On two pieces of mine that have contributed to an unfolding debate.
In late November, President Obama announced perhaps the most controversial single policy of his presidency to date: his plan for addressing the interconnected issues of illegal immigration, deportations of undocumented immigrant parents, border security, and more. As someone who’s hoping and working to become an AmericanStudies public scholar, contributing to our national conversations and collective memories around precisely such issues, and someone who’s most recent book focused overtly on immigration in American history and culture, this felt like a very significant moment. And I’m proud to say that I was able to add my voice and ideas to those conversations, in one particularly striking and one smaller but still I believe meaningful way:
1)      The striking effort was this post on the Talking Points Memo (TPM) website. As of this writing (on November 23rd), the post has received just under 70,000 views, more than 31,000 Facebook likes, and has become one of TPM’s most viewed and shared stories in months. While I’d love to take all the credit for that success (along with my colleagues at the Scholars Strategy Network who helped me place the piece), I believe it was due at least as much to perfect timing as to anything in my writing and ideas. And I’d say that’s been a vital public scholarly lesson I’m continuing to learn—to put myself and my work in position to capitalize on things like timing and opportunity, rather than waiting for audience or conversation to come to me.
2)      The smaller effort (in terms of my contribution, not the piece overall) was this collectively authored post on the new U.S. version of The Conversation. My own contribution was a concise version of the TPM post, which is the only reason I’m describing it as smaller. Because in truth, one of the most vital parts of public scholarship is (no pun intended) conversation, putting our own voice and ideas in dialogue with all those around us, which certainly includes our fellow scholars such as the great group who contributed to that post. As these immigration debates unfold, I believe it’ll be vitally important for many such scholarly voices to take part, and I’m excited and honored to be among those who have had the chance to do so.
Next current story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other current events you’d highlight?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

December 30, 2014: End of Year Stories: Bill Cosby

[While I don’t consistently cover current events in this space, I do try when I can to connect the histories, stories, and issues on which I focus to our contemporary moment. But sometimes it’s important to flip that script, and to contextualize some of those contemporary connections. So this week, I’ll do that with five ongoing American stories. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on them and on any other current stories!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy the dark story of a celebrity’s alleged crimes.
As with the stories of sexual assault at UVa on which I focused in yesterday’s post, I’ve followed the unfolding (if, of course, far from new) stories of Bill Cosby’s alleged serial rapes and sexual assaults with horror and anger. Most of them are outside of the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes and can never be brought to trial, so it’s entirely possible (at least as of this late November writing) that the story will linger for months or years with no closure, no possibility of resolution unless some sort of definitive proof emerges (unlikely) or Cosby confesses (even less likely). As such, the ongoing coverage of the story might seem like a sort of sleazy rubbernecking; but I would push back on that narrative, not only because it’s insulting to the alleged victims and their voices, but also because there are other important American contexts through which to analyze the issue.
One of those contexts has already been partially covered by one of our most thoughtful and talented contemporary public intellectuals, Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a powerful mea culpa about his own failure to pursue sufficiently the longstanding stories of Cosby’s assaults, Coates also engaged with the reason why he had been covering Cosby in the first place: Cosby’s speaking tour of African American communities, offering what have come to be known as “call-outs” that demand personal and shared responsibility and accountability of the members of those communities. It’s easy, and not wrong, to note that if Cosby is guilty of even a few of the many crimes of which he has been accused, such call-outs were profoundly hypocritical. But I would also take a step back to note the broader problem with these call-outs (one about which Coates has also written eloquently): that they demand that the African American community not include the same criminals that are present in every human community and society, ask African Americans to be “twice as good” as the rest of their fellow Americans and people. Every group—even our most beloved entertainers—has its share of criminals as well as heroes, and every type in between.
Cosby isn’t just part of the entertainment or African American communities, however; he’s also been for many decades the most famous representative of another group, Temple University alumni. As someone who received his PhD in English from Temple University (in 2005), I can attest to the enduring presence of Cosby on campus, not only in images and narratives but in his continuing active role on the university’s Board of Trustees. As that linked story indicates, as of this writing Temple has not decided whether to remove Cosby from that Board, and I don’t blame them for the hesitation—Cosby has been not only that most prominent representative of the university, but a longstanding and very significant supporter of its community and efforts in any number of ways. Of course no university wants to be associated with an alleged serial rapist; yet the sad but definite truth is that no university, and especially no public university, can afford in 2014 to quickly sever ties with one of its most prominent financial supporters. I imagine at some point Temple will do so—and at that point, ironically but to my mind undoubtedly, the university’s future stability will take a hit.
Next current story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other current events you’d highlight?

Monday, December 29, 2014

December 29, 2014: End of Year Stories: Fraternity Rapes

[While I don’t consistently cover current events in this space, I do try when I can to connect the histories, stories, and issues on which I focus to our contemporary moment. But sometimes it’s important to flip that script, and to contextualize some of those contemporary connections. So this week, I’ll do that with five ongoing American stories. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on them and on any other current stories!]
On the tragic and horrifying story that puts two of my earlier posts in a very different light.
You don’t have to have grown up in Charlottesville or have a parent who teaches at the University of Virginia (and many friends who attended the university as well) to have been deeply affected by the unfolding coverage of both recent and longstanding stories of sexual assault in UVa’s fraternities and campus community—but those personal connections have only added another layer to my horror, sadness, and anger at reading and following those stories. As I write this in late November, the university has suspended all fraternity activites until at least early January, so it’s fair to say that this story will continue to unfold into the new year. But it also has made me rethink a couple of my own blog posts from a Cville-inspired series earlier this fall.
In the first of that week’s posts, I highlighted some of the striking and even shocking stories of student misbehavior in the early days of Mr. Jefferson’s University, making the case that current critiques of student excesses fail to recognize how much such issues have been a part of college communities and life for centuries. That may well be the case, but what does it mean when it comes to these horrific stories of campus sexual violence (which are of course not at all unique to Virginia’s campus)? Are we to think (as the initial Rolling Stone story on Virginia, linked above under “at reading and following,” argued) that such violence has been part of the campus community and its fraternity system for at least decades, if not indeed centuries? Has it gotten worse in recent years, as depicted in many narratives of college party life and hookup cultures? I don’t pretend to know (and as always welcome your thoughts and perspectives in comments), but it does seem clear that there are pressing contemporary reasons to think about the histories of our college campuses and communities.
In the last of that week’s Cville posts, I engaged with an issue that relates closely to Virginia’s fraternity system: the culture of hazing, and how we understand and analyze it. In that post I tried to sympathize with the subjects of such hazings, noting that I had been one myself in high school. But any argument that those subjects are victims is hugely complicated, indeed contradicted, by one of the most horrific details of the Rolling Stone story—that in the case of the young woman at the heart of that story, her gang rape represented precisely such a hazing ritual, one in which the hazed subjects participated in sexually assaulting her (including in one case with a bottle). Whatever we think about peer pressure and its related effects, it’s impossible for me to imagine any scenario in which a rapist isn’t entirely culpable for his actions—and it’s important for me to make clear that my nuanced post and overall position on hazing doesn’t in any way mitigate these students’ culpability for such behavior and crimes.
Next current story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other current events you’d highlight?

PPS. As I'm sure most readers will already know, the UVa story has taken a striking turn since I wrote this post, with Rolling Stone's semi-retraction of their original story. That development certainly indicates that the story will continue to unfold--but does not, I would argue, change the broader points with which I'm engaged in this post (if it does of course impact specific details, such as whether that story's protagonist was gang-raped as part of a hazing ritual).

Saturday, December 27, 2014

December 27-28, 2014: A Birthday Wish

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I shared five authors I wish all Americans had the chance to read, leading up to this birthday wish for my favorite author.]
On Sunday, the Mother of All AmericanStudiers—well, no, but of this AmericanStudier—celebrates her birthday. Since she retired from her inspiring career in early childhood education one year ago, she’s done a lot—but one of the main things is work hard on her first novel. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a combination mystery, young adult novel, and work of social and psychological realism, one that features three hugely distinct but all equally well-drawn and compelling main characters. I’m not sure yet where it will go and what its final destinations and paths might look like, but I know it will be a book that every American (and person) would benefit from reading. So AmericanStudies Elves, I’ll end this series with a wish that my Mom’s book finds the home and audience it very much deserves—and when it does, you can be assured you’ll hear about it in this space!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Other wishes you’d share?

Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26, 2014: AmericanWishing: My Colleagues and Students

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I’ll be sharing five texts I wish all Americans had the chance to read. I’d love to hear about your wishlists as well!]
I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight, in a series asking us to read great writers, the works of some of my colleagues and students. I’m lucky enough to work with many, many talented folks, and these are just a few:
1)      Dr. Steve Edwards
2)      Dr. DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld
3)      Dr. Elise Takehana
4)      Dr. Heather Urbanski
5)      Detour, an online magazine written, edited, and produced entirely by FSU students;
6)      And the blog of Harrison Chute, one of our graduating English Studies majors.
Man, I’m just surrounded by great writing and writers. Can’t wish for better community than that!
Special post and wish this weekend,
Ben

PS. What would you wish for?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

December 25, 2014: AmericanWishing: Dorothy Day’s Writings

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I’ll be sharing five texts I wish all Americans had the chance to read. I’d love to hear about your wishlists as well!]
As I wrote in this post nominating her for the Hall of Inspiration, I can’t think of any Americans whose “life and legacy are more truly Christian,” as I (admittedly not a practicioner of that faith) would define the concept, than Dorothy Day. Whatever our individual beliefs or communities, Christianity—in both its worst and best forms—has had a profound impact on American society and culture. And there’s no better body of texts to read to engage with the best forms and their impacts than Day’s collected writings. If you’re looking for some Christmas Day reading, I can’t think of a better choice.
Last wish tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What would you wish for?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December 24, 2014: AmericanWishing: Chesnutt’s “Wife”

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I’ll be sharing five texts I wish all Americans had the chance to read. I’d love to hear about your wishlists as well!]
As Charles Dickens captured so perfectly, the holidays are often a time for reflection and introspection, for measuring our hopes and ideals against our choices and realities. As Scrooge illustrates, those reflections tend to connect not only to ourselves, but to others in our lives, and perhaps especially those we have lost or hurt. Yet Scrooge’s story also reminds us that it’s never too late to make things right, or at least make them better—and so too does one of my favorite short stories by one of my favorite authors, Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth.” A good Christmas Eve read!
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What would you wish for?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December 23, 2014: AmericanWishing: Melville’s “Paradise”

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I’ll be sharing five texts I wish all Americans had the chance to read. I’d love to hear about your wishlists as well!]
I’ve written before about Herman Melville’s two-part short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” But in this time of ever-increasing economic and social stratification and inequality, when the holidays and the wishes—like the worlds and lives—of those at the top and the bottom of our society’s structure seem to exist in different universes, I can think of few works more worth our attention than this story of two such contrasting communities, seemingly as far apart figuratively as they are literally, but perhaps more linked than we care to imagine.
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What would you wish for?

Monday, December 22, 2014

December 22, 2014: AmericanWishing: Lee's “The Gift”

[As I’ve done each of the last few years, I wanted to spend this holiday week sharing some wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. For this year’s, I’ll be sharing five texts I wish all Americans had the chance to read. I’d love to hear about your wishlists as well!]
No matter what the holiday season means to each of us, I have to believe that family (however we define that complicated and crucial community) is a central part of it for everyone. And I don’t know of a work of American literature that more succinctly, poignantly, and perfectly captures the gifts we get from and give to family than Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift.” Check it out, AmericanStudier family (and then check out this video of Lee discussing and reading his poem)!
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What would you wish for?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

December 20-21, 2014: Spring 2015 Preview

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations; that has led up to this weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d still love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections and/or Spring 2015 plans in comments!]
Five things I’m looking forward to in the New Year and its new semester:
1)      My First AHA Presentation: Other than some celebrating with the boys, my first act of 2015 will be to travel to New York, where I’ll be presenting as part of a panel on short-form scholarship at the American Historical Association Conference. It’s way past time for this AmericanStudier to connect to the most significant American history conference, and I’m very excited to attend for the first time.
2)      A New (To Me) Course: After a semester in which I only taught one American literature course, I’ll be returning to American lit with a vengeance: two sections of American Literature II (1865-present), one of Major American Authors of the 20th Century, and one of a senior seminar I’ll be teaching for the first time: The Romantic Movement in the U.S. While I enjoy the Romantics, I decided to broaden the class slightly: renaming it The Romantic Period in the U.S. and focusing on multiple genres and contexts for the 1830-1865 era. I’ll share more details in the spring!
3)      My Next ALFA Course: I’ve blogged before about my experiences with the wonderful ALFA program—it’s been over a year since I got to teach an ALFA course, and am very excited to do so in the spring. I decided to focus on the topic of my next book project: five nominees for the Hall of American Inspiration. I can’t wait to share these inspiring Americans and some of their writings and voices with the ALFA students.
4)      A Return to Toronto: In late April I’ll be back in Toronto, helping run NeMLA’s 2015 Conference (the last one before my own conference as President, in Hartford in 2016), hopefully delivering another talk at the University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, and definitely exploring this wonderful city further.
5)      Who Knows?: I’ve got other good stuff on the horizon: a book talk as part of ALFA’s Food for Thought program,  the next NEASA Colloquium, and more. But many of the best things over the last few years have arisen unexpectedly, and I’d like to leave some room for that to continue to happen. When they do arise, you can be assured I’ll update you here—and I hope you’ll do the same, now and going forward!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Any reflections or plans you’d share?

Friday, December 19, 2014

December 19, 2014: Semester Recaps: Three Other Reflections

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
Three other quick thoughts on aspects of my fall semester (not including the De Lange conference, about which see this week’s series of posts!):
1)      I Have A Lot to Learn about Canada: My two book talks in Toronto went incredibly well, largely due to the very gracious hosts at each site. And they left me with numerous aspects of Canadian history and identity into which I need to look further, both for the many ways they interestingly parallel U.S. histories and identities and for many provocative differences. To name one interesting such duality: Canada has its own Chinese Exclusion Act (1923), one that parallels the U.S. law in most respects; but because Canada only became fully independent from England in the late 20th century, many of its overall histories of immigration, citizenship, and related legal and social issues are hugely distinct from those of the U.S. I look forward to learning more!
2)      Strategic Planning Matters: Sure, I knew in an abstract way that FSU’s Strategic Planning process, on which I had the chance to work this fall as part of the Academic Values Working Group, represented a significant series of conversations and documents. But here’s an example of a far more tangible product of my Working Group’s efforts than I was expecting: we decided to make support for faculty work (both research and service) one of the values we believe FSU should embody, and so recommended specific and substantive improvements to the university’s release-time policies to provide such support. We’ll see whether and how that becomes part of the overall Strategic Plan—but our own conversations and statements (which are on the record) represent an important contribution in any case, it seems to me.
3)      My Colleagues Rock: Like the lesson about public school teachers I highlighted in yesterday’s post, this is something I’ve known for a long time. But this fall I felt it anew, for lots of reasons but I’ll highlight this one: two of my FSU English Studies colleagues, Joe Moser and Frank Mabee, were on sabbatical, pursuing their own next projects and enjoying some well-deserved rejuventation time. I hope they’ve been great semesters for both (maybe they’ll share some details in comments!), but I’ve missed them greatly, and I’ll sure be glad to have them back come January.
Spring plans this weekend,
Ben

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014: Semester Recaps: Intro to Speech

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
Three reflections at the end of my first semester teaching Intro to Speech.
1)      We All Have More to Learn: Yes, I gave sample versions of the Persuasive and Informational Speeches I required of my students—but those were on Bruce Springsteen and the Wilmington Coup and Massacre, respectively, so I felt pretty comfortable with each. But one of the Thursday evening classes happened to take place immediately before I delivered my first Pecha Kucha presentation, with and during which I felt much, much less comfortable. A good reminder of how much, when it comes to speech or any other skill, we all can and must continue to learn and grow.
2)      But We Also Know More than We Think: As I wrote in the above-linked Fall Preview post, as the semester commenced I felt distinctly unsure about how to teach an Intro to Speech course. But as we got into the work of the course, and especially as we talked about tips and strategies related to both kinds of speeches specifically and the art of presentation more broadly, I realized that much of my professional work, from teaching and conference talks to my last year and a half of book talks, has prepared me quite directly for teaching this particular topic. It definitely helped that I had chosen a very clear and practical textbook to accompany those conversations. But my own experiences became a more and more overt part of our discussions and work as well, and that was a good reminder of what they have helped me learn.
3)      Public School Teachers Are Awesome: True, my own family, as well as my experiences as a student, have long since taught me this lesson. And true, in my Graduate English courses at FSU I’ve taught many secondary educators, all of whom have reinforced this perspective. But the students in this course represented a community with whom I hadn’t had a chance to work previously: vocational educators, teaching at the course’s site (Monty Tech) as well as many other regional vocational high schools. Through their persuasive and informative speeches, as well as through many other aspects of our discussions and their voices, I got to learn a great deal about their teaching and work, and all that they bring to them. And sure enough, I have one more semester’s worth of evidence for the awesomeness of our public educators.
Last recap tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 17, 2014: Semester Recaps: Senior Capstone

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On the best answer I can think of to the question “What can you do with an English degree?”
I love teaching our senior English Studies Capstone course. I love the chance to read their senior portfolios, in which the students pull together writing pieces, projects, and other work across many different genres, types, stages, and skills; it gives me a chance to get to know these graduating majors in a way I would never otherwise be able to. I love having a space where we can just talk about some of the topics and questions at the heart of our discipline: what writing is and why we do it; how literature works and what it does to and for us; the challenges, frustrations, and possibilities of education; and many more. Perhaps most of all, I love teaching a course that embodies my student-driven teaching philosophy so fully that I can’t even plan out many aspects of the class until I’ve met this particular cohort and started to figure out what they most need.
But this semester, as we worked on another element to my version of Capstone—conversations about and preparations for their next professional steps, including both career options and graduate school possibilities—I realized that teaching Capstone offers another unique pleasure: the chance to gain specific, detailed, evolving evidence for just how many different futures one can pursue with an English degree. In thinking about students from my prior Capstone sections (to share their successes with my current students), I began to realize the breadth of their current situations: from PhD candidates (in both the U.S. and the U.K.!) to educators at every level; from those teaching in South Korea and Japan to those running their own editing and freelance writing businesses; from published novelists and poets to professional actors and screenwriters; from librarians to specialists at museums and historic sites; among many other jobs and paths. And in talking with the current students, I see just as many possible paths and next steps for them.
I’m not trying to deny the genuine and very troubling realities of the current job market, in any and ever discipline and profession, and all the accompanying issues (student loan debt, for example) that come with it. Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t certain challenges that an English degree presents that would be less present with one of FSU’s more overtly pre-professional majors (Nursing, for example). But on the other hand, I do have four Capstone sections’ worth of rebuttals to any doom-and-gloom perspectives on the futures available to English majors, and I look forward to adding the students from this fifth section to that growing body of evidence. And yeah, I can’t lie—when I see how well-prepared these majors are for their next steps (professional, educational, all of ‘em), I also kind of want to parphrase Jack Nicholson’s almost-concluding line from As Good As It Gets: “it makes me feel good, about me.”
Next recap tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 16, 2014: Semester Recaps: Approaches to English Studies

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On two exemplary moments of applied literary theory.
I’ve written before in this space about the irony of a scholar who has never been closely connected to theory (to put it politely) becoming a frequent teacher of our department’s two most theoretical courses: the undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Introduction to Literary Theory. I’ll be teaching the latter course for the fourth time this spring, and this fall taught my second and third sections of Approaches. I can’t lie—I was still most excited for the weeks when we were working more directly with primary literary texts (and various contextual and theoretical materials related to them), from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a week with multiple poets and poems. But as I’ve gotten more practice with these theoretical courses, I’ve gotten better at finding ways to help students (and me!) connect our theory readings to literary and cultural questions and conversations, and here want to highlight two wonderful such connections from this semester’s sections.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the day in which we discussed four Feminist essays (by Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, and the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective) inspired a particularly rich discussion. The conversation ranged across multiple subjects, from the more familiar (Disney Princesses) to the more unexpected (She’s the Man). But I was particularly impressed when we turned to Facebook, and the many ways in which users on the site create, reinforce, challenge, and otherwise engage with aspects of gender, sexuality, and identity (both in their individual profiles and in how they relate to one another). I try throughout the semester to argue that our theoretical readings, even the densest and most seemingly philosophical (yes, even our essay by Derrida, much as I sorta hate to admit it), have things to contribute to our contemporary conversations and perspectives; in these few minutes of discussion, the students made the case for such connections far better than I ever could.
The place where the Approaches students most consistently demonstrate those connections, however, is in their individual final projects: I ask them to create a Casebook focused on a primary text of their own choosing (in any genre/medium), and to consider how different contexts and theories can help us approach and analyze that work. All 40+ Casebooks were interesting and inspiring, both in their specific readings and in the way they reflected the students’ evolving perspectives to which our readings and conversations had meaningfully contributed. But I have to admit that I was ecstatic (my son Aidan’s favorite adjective, and a very apt one here) when one of the students used The Wire as his Casebook text, and applied Ethnic Studies, New Historicism, Gender Studies, and Marxist theoretical approaches to an extended and entirely successful reading of multiple moments, characters, and themes from that seminal show. Omar Little analyzed through a combination of bell hooks’ ideas of postmodern blackness, gender theory, and Georg Lukacs’ Marxist concepts of heroic identity and potentiality? Okay, literary theory, I’m sold.
Next recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Monday, December 15, 2014

December 15, 2014: Semester Recaps: The American Novel

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On endings, happy, sad, and perfect.
For purposes of syllabus structure and helping us move through 150 years of texts and their contexts, I break my American Novel to 1950 class up into three sections: Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism. Such categorizations are, as always, at least somewhat forced and inexact: for example, my first Romantic text, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), pretty clearly fits (Hawthorne identifies his novel as a Romance in his famous Preface); while my second, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is a lot trickier to connect to that genre or movement and certainly relates just as closely to realism and its various sub-genres such as local color/regionalism. But the categories help the students think about that very question (how we categorize and define novels and their genres)—and, as I was reminded this semester, they also can help me come to new ideas about these works I’ve read and taught many times.
The new idea that struck me most forcefully this time around has to do with the novels’ endings (long a subject of literary critical investigation). Despite their many differences, both of those Romantic novels come to strikingly and (to this reader, and to many students as well) frustratingly happy endings, too-neat resolutions that tie up virtually all their historical, social, and thematic conflicts and send their protagonists off into a feel-good future. Similarly, despite their own significant differences, both of our Realistic novels (Chopin’s The Awakening and Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky) end on far more negative and even tragic notes, their protagonists feeling hopelessly pessimistic about not only their futures but their very identities (the last book of Cahan’s novel is titled “Episodes of a Lonely Life,” which could describe Chopin’s culmating section as well). And it seems to me that these respective kinds of endings are at least somewhat necessary for these two genres, and thus that one way to make sense of Twain’s notoriously controversial ending is to see it as a retreat into the more Romantic aspects of a novel that has featured plenty of realistic elements as well.
Perhaps it’s because I had been thinking about these questions of endings throughout our first two units; but in any case, when we got to our fifth novel and first Modernist text, Cather’s My Antonia (1918), I was even more affected by its ending, which I have long found to be among the most beautiful in American literature. On the one hand, the ending’s lyrical description of her novel’s Nebraska setting echoes multiple moments from throughout the text, especially those located at or near the end of its structuring Books (including Book II’s famous plough and sun description). But on another, the ending’s true power depends on where we, along with our narrator Jim Burden and his lifelong friend Antonia Shimerda, have arrived; it’s a moment defined equally for me, as is Jim’s appreciation of the Nebraska landscape, by a Romantic temperament and a Realistic subject, by the intimate details of Antonia’s life as an immigrant on the frontier and by the sweeping lens of Jim’s love and admiration for her. Perhaps this ending’s perfection, that is, is due to its combination of categories—a combination that, like Antonia’s story, feels particularly American.
Next recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 13-14, 2014: Andrea Grenadier’s Guest Post on Charles Ives

[Andrea Grenadier is a writer/editor based in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a 1978 graduate of Mary Washington College with a B.A. in American Studies, focusing on music, fine arts, and history. She completed her first (self-published) novel, The Journal of My Plague Year in 2005, and has published several poems in Pennsylvania English. She is currently preparing her first chapbook, What Brings Me Here, and can be reached at algrenadier@earthlink.net.]

O, Pioneer!: Charles Ives and the “Concord” Sonata

In a 20th century full of cranky, iconoclastic American composers, the musical pioneer Charles Ives would still hover among the top five, perhaps with a bullet. He was also, most certainly, the only American composer who had a highly successful career in insurance.

There is music, and there is music so far ahead of its time, it will always sound modern. You could pick up Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” — composed from 1909 to 1915 and published in 1920 — drop it into the vast contemporary music ocean, and be unable to guess its age. It’s that strange and that rhythmically complex, with abrupt polyrhythms and general mayhem invoking marching bands, parlor tunes, hymns, and chasing through it all in a variety of guises, the four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which forever obsessed Ives. It’s also wildly entertaining, surprising at every kaleidoscopic turn, wistful, affectionately dreamy of times past, and powerfully evocative. To Ives, it also felt unfinished, perhaps on purpose.  

Why this particular piece has always stayed with me is a mystery, 40 years after hearing it for the first time in a Fine Arts seminar at Mary Washington College. In 1974, the year of Ives’ centenary, a full-scale re-examination of his life and works was well underway. Despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947 for his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, Ives’ music was largely ignored in his lifetime. I must have heard John Kirkpatrick’s 1968 recording for Columbia in the music library. (Kirkpatrick premiered the work in 1939.) The view from the music library was particularly poetic; you either looked onto some majestic trees toward the amphitheater, or if you were sitting on the other side of the building, you became part of an elegant colonnade in the shape of a horseshoe. If you walked through those columns past all the practice rooms on any given afternoon, you’d hear a perfect mash-up of the history of music. That’s what hearing Ives was like.

Ives, who lived from 1874 to 1954, spanned 80 remarkable years in music. Ives’ father George was a bandleader, and it is said (although this may have been just a charming story to entertain students), that the experience of hearing the marching band — as well as another band at opposite sides of the town square playing simultaneously — must have entered Charles Ives’ work almost the same way: opposing rhythms and harmonics heard as through a window as the sounds rise and fade, the bands having moved on. In his teaching, George Ives’ broad approach to music theory must have encouraged his son to experiment with the polytonal/bitonal harmonies and complex rhythms found in his music, as well as a cultivated-meets-vernacular approach. In the 1890s, he studied composition at Yale University, under Horatio Parker.

The “Concord” Sonata is a devil of a piece to play. Some material dates back as far as 1904, but Ives did not begin substantial work on it until around 1911, and largely completed the work by 1915. When it was first printed in 1920, Ives wrote an elaborate, 30,000-word “program note” in which he explained that the four-movement sonata was an “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago.” It introduces us, in order, to Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. E.B. White had a fine phrase that characterizes the sheer restlessness of the piece: “chronic perplexity.” This unsettled and searching quality defies rootedness, except in its contemplative-rich Alcott movement, with a haunting flute solo.

When the polymathic pianist-librettist-essayist Jeremy Denk recorded Ives’ Sonatas No. 1 and 2 in 2012, I was once again drawn to Ives. In the February 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Denk describes in “Flight of the Concord” the joys, the hell, and the unending neuroses of recording the sonata, while also discovering that the editing could be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. It’s a fine read, especially if you like the idea of knowing how musical sausage is made, from 
selecting the piano and recording to the editing suite.

To know the first movement “Emerson,” is to dwell in the philosopher’s Transcendentalism. It begins with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 four-note motif, and expresses Emerson’s core beliefs with impressionistic waves of sound. I have always found much restless conflict in this movement, perhaps much like Emerson’s philosophy itself. It dances from sweetness to passionate outbursts, like a philosophical Q&A session with the universe. Emerson’s belief that “all is connected, and God is in all things,” reflected his idea that all of nature’s elements in the universe were   representations of the soul itself.  These may not sound like radical ideas now, but when expressed in 1841, they made 
Emerson an iconoclast — something that Ives must have viscerally understood.

The next movement, “Hawthorne,” is best described as rollicking and playful, with fantastical outbursts. Hawthorne-as-moralist is not to be found in this often-witty movement; in “Essays Before a Sonata,” Ives writes: “The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical —so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist.”  Listen closely, and in the middle of the movement, you’ll find some syncopated ragtime, some well-placed musical pauses, and some crashing dissonant chords. You’ll also hear one of Ives’ more eccentric technical directions, when a 14-3/4-inch piece of wood (it’s in the score) is evenly deployed over the black keys — decades before John Cage and his “prepared piano” experiments.

“The Alcotts” movement begins with a hymn-like treatment of Beethoven’s four-note motif. You can almost hear them in the parlor as if in conversation: a gentle statement, the crashing motif in response. There’s gentle interplay of themes into the fabric with wholehearted simplicity, a folk tune and a pentatonic melody. Stephen Foster is also here, sentimental and romantic.

The final movement is Thoreau’s, which Henry Cowell called “a kind of mystic reflection on man’s identification of himself with nature.” “Thoreau” is an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden Pond, and memorializes not only Thoreau, but Ives’ father as well, who died before Ives entered Yale in 1894. About Thoreau, Ives wrote: “He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude…” Tellingly, Ives also compares Thoreau to the musical impressionist Claude Debussy. Considering the profound influence the father had upon the son’s own musical experimentation, the movement is restless and meditative, the offstage flute toward the final third weaves the four-note motif, calling in a pentatonic melody against gentle chords. It is a tribute to nature, to beauty, and to loss.

In searching for a suitable recording, you won’t be at a loss — there are 23 versions listed here at Arkivmusic.com. A new and notable biography of Ives, Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel by Stephen Budiansky is a recent addition to the growing Ives bookshelf.  On my own shelf is one of the earliest and finest academic assessments, by composer Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music, published in 1955.
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?]

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12, 2014: Cold Culture: Ice Ice Baby

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On two AmericanStudies stages to Vanilla Ice’s story—beyond the obvious one, that is.
When Dallas-born rapper Robert Van Winkle chose “Vanilla Ice” as his stage name, he embraced quite overtly and strikingly the complex cultural dynamics that have accompanied “white rappers” for as long as both the musical genre and the identity category have existed. In case that wasn’t overt enough, it was Ice’s single “Ice Ice Baby” (1990) that became not only his first and biggest hit, but also the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts. And just in case that still didn’t introduce such cultural and social questions sufficiently, the song and rapper were subsequently embroiled in accusations that its famous bass line had been sampled without permission from the Queen and David Bowie classic “Under Pressure” (an accusation that Ice answered with one of the more humorous plagiarism defenses in cultural history). Lots of AmericanStudies contexts and connections for a simple ditty that just asked us all to stop, collaborate, and listen.
Ice has never been as popular or culturally resonant as he was in that initial, 1990 moment of ascension, but that doesn’t mean that his evolving American story hasn’t included other telling moments and stages. With his late 1991 action film Cool as Ice Ice made a bid to become the latest in a long line of American musical artists who had parlayed that success into film stardom: Elvis Presley is often cited as the prototype, but Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra both got there first, and subsequent superstars such as Madonna have made the same move (if, in her case, with more mixed success to be sure). Yet Ice’s film debut tanked, both in box office and with the critics—so much so, in fact, that it led his record label, SBK, to decide he was overexposed and pull back on their support, a shift that would mark the beginning of the end of his stardom. I haven’t seen Cool as Ice, and it’s possible that the film is just that bad—but it’s not like all 31 of Elvis’s scripted films were Oscar contenders either, so it’d be fair to ask whether the backlash against Ice’s film had something to do with our contemporary cultural tendency to first obsess over and then push back against ubiquitous cultural icons (see also: Hammer, MC).
Whatever the reasons, Cool as Ice’s failure coincided with—if indeed it did not cause—Ice’s fall, and as quickly as he had become a star he was out of the public eye. As I noted in this post, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous belief that “there are no second acts in American lives” was framed in specific response to first act collapses or failures; if we measure such acts by fame or other prominent markers of success, than Ice has indeed not found a second act to match his first. But why should we measure a life’s acts by fame or the like, especially in the aforementioned short-attention-span era, when we move on to the next new celebrity as quickly as we embraced the last one? Why not simply follow the acts and stages of every artist’s career and life, and see where they might take us? Seen in that light, Ice has had a varied and interesting post-stardom arc: it includes a clichéd but unfortunately authentic battle with substance abuse, but also features time as a professional motorcross racer, aesthetic shifts to both hard rock and reggae (among other genres), and an extended and ongoing participation in the notorious Juggalo community (fans of the Insane Clown Posse). Not a neat or simple story to be sure—but a very 21st century American one.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight for that weekend post?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

December 11, 2014: Cold Culture: Winter’s Bone

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On the gritty realism, and something more, found in a compelling recent indie film.
It’s set in the Ozarks, not the Appalachians, but in many other ways writer-director Debra Granik’s award-winning film Winter’s Bone (2010; I haven’t read Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, so I’ll be focusing on the film alone here) would have made a perfect addition to my early-October series on AmericanStudying Appalachia. The film feels very much like a 21st century version of local color, one that utilizes the same sorts of regional and cultural stereotypes yet also, like the best such regionalist fiction, finds the complex and compelling humanity within the locally grounded communities and stories it traces. That Winter’s Bone’s communities and stories includes a heavy dose of methamphetamine production represents, unfortunately, precisely such a realistic (if certainly controversial) engagement with early 21st century life in the Ozarks.
In its protagonist and heroine Ree, however—acted to understated perfection by a very young Jennifer LawrenceWinter’s Bone adds an important layer on top of that bleak realism. I used the term “heroine” very purposefully to describe Ree: despite its overall depiction of a gritty, dark world, one defined not only by the centrality of meth but by threats (and realities) of violence at every turn, Winter’s Bone focuses on an idealized central character, a young woman consistently willing to do everything possible (up to and including risking her own life) to take care of her disabled mother and two younger siblings. And while the film impressively balances those two sides, the darkness and the ideals, for most of its running time, there’s little doubt by the conclusion that goodness has triumphed: Ree has survived her ordeal, achieved her objectives, and remains firmly in control of her family; she has even made a positive dent in the perspective of the film’s other most important and complex character, her bitter and cynical uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes).
These two elements to Winter’s Bone, its local color realism and idealized heroine, could be read as contrasting or even contradictory. But there’s another possibility, one related to what I highlighted in this series on New England women’s writing: a recognition that a central theme of much late 19th century local color writing was precisely the under-narrated struggles, strengths, and heroisms of American women. Much of that fiction, indeed, made an implicit or even explicit argument that such a focus on local communities allows for an awareness of and engagement with those women’s experiences and stories that might otherwise be impossible within our dominant or traditional narratives of American life and identity. Similarly, a young woman like Ree is far from a traditional 21st century film heroine or protagonist—but her home and region are likewise outside of the norm when it comes to our collective stories, and in drawing our attention to that setting and world, Granik’s film concurrently makes it possible for us to engage with the singular, striking, and very American story of young Ree Dolly.
Last cold cultural connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December 10, 2014: Cold Culture: The Iceman Cometh

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On a dark and compelling portrait of hollow dreams, and where it comes up short.
The late 1940s saw the first productions of an incredible trio of American dramatic works, each among its talented author’s, as well as the century’s and the nation’s, finest: Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939 but first performed in 1946); Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947); and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). I wrote a bit about Miller’s portrayal of identity, family, and the American Dream in this post; I hope to do the same for Williams’ play, and the equally compelling and groundbreaking 1951 film version, at some point down the road. But today I wanted to focus specifically on the coldest of the trio, in every sense: O’Neill’s funny and dynamic but ultimately bleak and cynical Iceman.
Examined in relationship to O’Neill’s general métier, the kinds of extreme, psychological family melodramas exemplified by Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and Desire Under the Elms (1924), Iceman is positively comic by comparison. The dreamers and schemers who populate the play’s barroom setting are as drunken and deluded as O’Neill’s characters tend to be, but they’re also a lively and witty bunch, one-upping each other’s stories and attempted cons as they await the titular character and their collective icon, legendary salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. To my mind, those diverse tones make Iceman O’Neill’s most successful work, not only at keeping an audience engaged throughout but also at capturing both the dreams and the nightmares, the myths and the realities, that so often comprise American identities, individual and communal. When Hickey’s story and identity collapse in the play’s final act, that is, the contrast between the ideal and the real is emphasized—for the other characters and for us—far more potently and effectively than would otherwise be the case.
Yet Iceman is not without its shortcomings, and in many ways they’re as telling as its strengths. For one thing, the play’s depiction of women is even more limited than Death of a Salesman’s (as I discussed in that aforementioned post); Iceman’s prostitutes are quite literally cyphers on whom the much more complex male characters simply project their needs and myths, and that’s even more true of the absent female character (Hickey’s murdered wife) on whom much of the play’s climax hinges. But even if we take the play on its own terms, focus on those complex characters at its heart, I would argue that in their distinct but ultimately parallel stories O’Neill’s cynical coldness becomes self-fulfilling and thus self-defeating. That is, if every image is false, every story a myth, every dream a delusion, it becomes far less possible to invest in the significance of any one such story and hope—if they’re all “pipe dreams,” to use the play’s constant refrain, then no particular one of them, nor by extension any of ours, matters at all. That level of consistent cynicism is more than just unappealing to a critical optimist such as this AmericanStudier—it becomes more of a reflex than an analytical or thoughtful take on identity or America.
Next cold cultural connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December 9, 2014: Cold Culture: Affliction and A Simple Plan

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On winter’s and America’s possibiliities and limits in two dark recent films.

When you think about it, snow and the American Dream have a lot in common. (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about race. Not this time, anyway.) Both are full of possibility, of a sense of childlike wonder and innocence, conjuring up nostalgic connections to our families and our childhoods as well as ideals of play and community and warmth (paradoxical for snow I know but definitely true for me—snow always makes me think of hot chocolate and fires in the fireplace). Yet as we get to be adults, both also suggest much more realistic and limiting and even threatening details, of dangerous conditions and losses of power and the cold that can set in if we can’t afford to heat our home. And once we have kids of our own, the coexistence of those two levels is particularly striking—seeing their own excitement and innocence and thorough focus on the possibilities, and certainly sharing them, but also worrying that much more about whether we can get them through the drifts, drive them safely where they need to go, keep them warm.

I might be stretching the connection to its breaking point, but the link might help explain why so many films that explore the promises and pitfalls of the American Dream seem to do so amidst a snow-covered landscape. Near the top of that list for me are two character-driven thrillers from the late 1990s: Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998). Both are based on novels—the former a work of literary fiction by the great Russell Banks, the latter a page-turning thriller by Scott Smith—but both, to my mind, are among those rare examples of films that significantly improve upon the source material; partly they do so through amazing screenplays (Smith interestingly wrote the screenplay based on his own book, and I would argue changed it for the better in every way), but mostly through inspired and pitch-perfect casting: Affliction centers on a career-best performance from Nick Nolte, but his work is definitely equaled by James Coburn (in an Academy-Award winning turn), Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, and Willem Dafoe; while Simple is truly an ensemble piece, with Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton both doing unbelievable work but great contributions as well from Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross, and Gary Cole. And in both, again, the snowy setting—small-town New Hampshire in Affliction, small-town North Dakota in Simple, but they might as well be next door—is a central presence and character in its own right.

The multiple, interconnecting plot threads of both films are complex, rich, and intentionally suspenseful and mysterious, and I’m most definitely not going to spoil them here. But I will say that both are, at heart, stories of the dreams and weaknesses, the ideals and failures, that we inherit from our parents, and how as adults (and especially perhaps as adults struggling with the responsibilities of family and parenthood) we try to live up to and beyond the dreams and ideals but are pulled back by and ultimately risk becoming ourselves the weaknesses and failures. It is perhaps not much of a spoiler either (just look at the titles!) to note that both films, while offering their characters and audiences glimpses of possibility and hope, bring them and us to extremely bleak final images, worlds where the snow storms may have passed but where the silence and lifelessness they have left behind are all we can see and all we can imagine. And both do so, most powerfully, by bringing their protagonists back to their childhood homes, sites (in these cases) at one and the same time of those most innocent ideals and of some of the strongest influences in turning those ideals into something much darker and colder.
When it comes to wintry or especially holiday fare, these two definitely aren’t It’s a Wonderful Life, which certainly connects its own bleak middle section very fully to a world of snow and storm but which of course ends with its protagonist in the warmest and most hopeful possible place (and in a home that has become again the source of such ideals). But either could make a pretty evocative snow day double feature with that equally great film of the American Dream and its limits. Next cold cultural connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight?

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 8, 2014: Cold Culture: Frozen

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On challenges to our expectations, less and more successful. [SPOILERS for Frozen follow!]
If one animated film I’ve analyzed in this space, The Princess and the Frog, significantly revised the existing canon of Disney Princesses, the newest and now most financially successful Disney animated film, Frozen (2013), goes further still. The film overtly seeks to revise a number of the tropes and myths at the heart of virtually every prior Disney film, including romantic narratives and their reliance on the concepts of love at first sight and true love, heroines/princesses and their arcs and goals, and even the relative importance of familial vs. romantic relationships in our storytelling. We’re not talking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? level meta-textuality here, exactly—but for a  Disney animated film, I was struck by just how much Frozen comments on and challenges those traditional tropes.
All of those challenges are interesting and meaningful, but it’s also instructive to note which ones work and which, to this viewer, don’t. In the latter category I would locate the film’s challenge to romantic narratives, which it achieves by first linking its princess heroine Anna with the dashing Prince Hans and then eventually revealing him to be a heartless villain instead. It’s true that Frozen foreshadows that character shift through multiple characters’ reactions to Anna’s instant love and connection; she is repeatedly, incredulously asked, “You’re engaged to a man you just met?!” But it’s also true that much of the early section of Frozen makes happy use of the romantic tropes, including the extended song and dance number “Love is an Open Door.” So if Hans’ sudden shift feels somewhat unbelievable (and to this viewer it did), the film’s own heavy earlier reliance on those romantic tropes would have to be seen as contributing to that effect.
On the other hand, I found Frozen’s challenges to the traditional heroine arcs and emphases very successful and quite moving. That’s true for the two individual characters, as both Anna and (especially) her sister Elsa have journeys that are far more about their perspectives, experiences, and identities than about finding a romantic partner. But it’s even more true for them as sisters, as their stories are deeply intertwined and come to a powerful conclusion that remains more about them, individually and as a pair, than it is about the love interest character or indeed anyone outside of this complex duo. To see a pair of complex women whose relationship is rich and evolving and multi-layered, and whose most powerful emotional notes depend on that familial history and bond—well, I don’t know that I was ready for a Disney film that could pass the Bechdel Test. But I’m very glad that this one does.
Next cold cultural connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight?