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Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 28-March 1, 2015: February 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
February 2: American Conspiracy Theories: Roswell: A series AmericanStudying our crazy beliefs starts with historical and cultural contexts for alien invaders.
February 3: American Conspiracy Theories: JFK: The series continues with a couple arguments for why we have so many doubts about one particular assassination.
February 4: American Conspiracy Theories: Men on the Moon: Two compelling cultural engagements with a longstanding conspiracy community, as the series rolls on.
February 5: American Conspiracy Theories: Black Helicopters: How a 1990s conspiracy theory foreshadowed our 21st century world.
February 6: American Conspiracy Theories: 9/11 Truthers: The series concludes with how not to respond to a contemporary conspiracy theory, and how to do so.
February 7-8: Crowd-sourced Conspiracies: Fellow AmericanStudiers share their responses to the week’s posts and other conspiratorial connections—add yours in comments!
February 9: I Love Attica Locke’s Mysteries: A Valentine’s-inspired series starts with the compelling first two novels, and upcoming third, by a new writer I love.
February 10: I Love David Simon’s Perspective: The series continues with three of the many reasons why I love one of the great 21st century American artists and voices.
February 11: I Love American Historical Films: Five wonderful historical films that reflect all that the genre can do and be, as the series rolls on.
February 12: I Love Writing Book Reviews: How the reviews I’ve had the chance to write to date illustrate all that I can learn and take away from the experience each and every time.
February 13: I Love Magical Historic Sites: The series concludes with five examples of historical and cultural sites that immerse us in American history and identity.
February 14-15: I Love Being an Uncle: But wait, a special Valentine’s weekend post on the new familial role I’m excited to add to my list of loves.
February 16: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Breaking Bad: My annual series on things I don’t love as much as I should starts with a beloved recent TV show.
February 17: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Sinatra and Elvis: The series continues with two undeniably talented and influential artists, and why I don’t quite love either.
February 18: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Emerson and Thoreau: What I do love about two American titans, and what I don’t, as the series rolls on.
February 19: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Boxing: The American sport without which we can’t entirely understand history and race, and my objections to it.
February 20: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Low Five: The series concludes with five historical figures who get no love from this AmericanStudier.
February 21-22: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: A collective airing of grievances from fellow AmericanStudiers—you know you’ve got some complaints to add in comments!
February 23: Western Mass. Histories: The Blackstone River Valley: A series on a too-often overlooked Mass. region starts with a new National Historic Park.
February 24: Western Mass. Histories: The Celestials in North Adams: The series continues with a forgotten historical and cultural moment, and the novel that helps us remember it.
February 25: Western Mass. Histories: Mass MOCA: Three of the many reasons to visit an amazing Western Mass. museum, as the series rolls on.
February 26: Western Mass. Histories: The Bridge of Flowers: Three evocative, very American stages in the history of a unique landmark.
February 27: Western Mass. Histories: The Belle of Amherst: The series concludes with why we shouldn’t simply connect Emily Dickinson to her Western Mass. home, and how we can.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, February 27, 2015

February 27, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Belle of Amherst

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On why we shouldn’t limit Emily Dickinson to her hometown, and why the connection still matters.
When it comes to American authors who are associated with prominent and very specific images of them and their work, I would put Emily Dickinson on the short list, right alongside Poe and his Raven and Twain and his white suit (and maybe Plath and her Daddy issues and suicide). Most of the authors whom I include on my American Lit survey syllabi are unfamiliar to the majority of my students, but these are the exceptions, Dickinson among them; they do have a sense of the poet, one entirely tied to biographical details such as her lifelong seclusion within her Amherst home and her unwillingness to publish the poems that she obsessively wrote in that space. The latter stereotype is easy to push back on—I just share with them Dickinson’s conversations with Thomas Wentworth Higginson about publishing her poetry. But the Amherst connection? That’s a harder nut to crack.
After all, Dickinson’s biographers and historians have confirmed that (to the best of our knowledge) she never left her family’s property for the last two decades of her life, leading to the local descripton of her as “the nun of Amherst” (one often revised in the 20th century to “the belle of Amherst”). One of her most famous poems open with the lines, “This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me,” amplifying that sense of separation and seclusion. Yet as a number of recent scholars have demonstrated, during precisely that era of increasing seclusion Dickinson was profoundly engaged with and impacted by the Civil War, to cite only one example of why and how her interests, imagination, and writing ranged far beyond her home and town. Indeed, if we flip the reading of the “letter to the world” lines, we can remember that just because illness and family issues and other factors limited Dickinson’s mobility and ability to travel, that doesn’t mean she was not deeply engaged with varied and widespread histories, stories, and communities; her poetry, like her letters, consistently reflects such broad and deep engagement.
But if we can and should take the poet out of Amherst, we can’t and shouldn’t take the Amherst out of the poet. Which is to say, there are many ways in which the identity of this small Western Massachusetts town can be connected to the work and perspective of its most famous resident. For one thing, Amherst has as longstanding a history of higher education as any small American community—Amherst College was founded in 1821 (9 years before Dickinson’s birth) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1863, meaning that Dickinson did her artistic and intellectual work in a hotbed of such activity. For another, the town is also a hotbed of political activity and activism—throughout the 19th century, as illustrated by local products such as Helen Hunt Jackson, Chief Justice Harlan Stone, and Congressman Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father; and into the present, as demonstrated by the saying “Only the ‘h’ is silent” to describe the town. And for a third, the town has as deep and complex a relationship to American history and identity as did Dickinson, having been named after a hero of the French and Indian War who was also one of the first to recommend the use of smallpox-covered blankets in conflicts with Native Americans. A town that is as complex, engaged, and intelligent as Dickinson herself—not a bad fit after all.
February Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

February 26, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Bridge of Flowers

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On three compelling stages to the history of the Shelburne Falls landmark.
I’ve written a couple of prior posts about historic sites that developed in direct connection to the late 19th and early 20th century era of local trolley railways: Charlottesville (VA)’s Fry’s Spring’s period as a “trolley park”; and one of the most popular such trolley parks, Newton (MA)’s Norumbega Park. (Both Boston’s Revere Beach and New York’s Coney Island are in that conversation as well.) Although the Bridge of Flowers is now known as a pedestrian bridge, it began life as a trolley bridge, built in 1908 to allow the cars of the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway to journey between the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. Although these trolleys carried heavy freight and goods as well as passengers, they nonetheless also allowed for residents to travel much more easily and frequently between these communities, creating in the process the kinds of communal and social experiences for which the trolley parks became so famous.
The railway went bankrupt in 1927 and the bridge seemed destined for unuse and decay; but thanks to a couple significant subsequent efforts, the bridge has instead continued to offer such social experiences ever since. In a 1928 letter to the editor of a local paper, Shelburne’s Clara Barnard quoted her friend, the late Antoinette Burnham; Burnham, collaborating with her invalid husband Walter, had developed an idea to turn what could be an industrial eyesore into “a bridge of beauty.” Later that year, the recently founded Shelburne Falls Women’s Club sponsored the project, and in the spring of 1929 loam and fertilizer were added to the bridge, providing the starting points for the first blossomings of what has become an annual Bridge of Flowers. To my mind, this inspiring moment represents a local, practical version of the City Beautiful Movement, and indeed can be seen as an embodiment of that movement’s emphasis on bringing natural beauty to all Americans, regardless of their geographical location and social status.
If the idea behind the Bridge of Flowers was designed to be perennial, however, the initial building of the bridge had not been, and a 1975 Hampshire College study determined that the bridge had deteriorated dangerously by that time. A subsequent 1979 engineering study recommended repairs that would cost nearly $600,000, but Shelburne Falls and its neighboring towns were up to the challenge: a combined effort of the Women’s Club, the Shelburne Falls Fire Department, and numerous private donations, coupled with a sizeable Massachusetts Small Cities Community Development Block Grant, yielded the full required amount, and the restoration efforts began in May 1983. My favorite detail about those efforts is that every plant from the bridge was removed and cared for in private gardens throughout the restorations, so that they and the bridge could be returned to full bloom once it was safe and ready once more. No idea, no matter how inspiring or beautiful, can be sustained without continued care and commitment, a reality potently illustrated by the beautiful Western Mass landmark that is the Bridge of Flowers.
Last history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 25, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: Mass MOCA

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On two reasons you should visit the great museum any time, and one reason to do so ASAP.
The small town of North Adams isn’t just home to the histories about which I wrote in yesterday’s post: it also hosts a unique institution of public higher education, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA); and an even more unique museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA). Housed in a sprawling complex of former industrial buildings that date back more than two centuries and have received National Historic Register status, and making excellent use of the specifics of that space (many of which feel as if they could still house the factory floors and workers who once occupied them), Mass MOCA rivals the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in combining the universal appeal of an art museum with the specific identity of a site and its histories. I know North Adams isn’t exactly next door for most of us, but if you find yourself in either the New York or Boston areas with room for a daytrip, Mass MOCA is well worth your time.
That’s true not only because of the museum’s unique location and identity, but also because of how it presents its modern art exhibitions. I can’t put it any more clearly than does the museum’s own mission statement: “If conventional museums are boxes, MASS MoCA strives instead to be an open platform—a welcoming environment that encourages free exchange between the making of art and its display, between the visual and performing arts, and between our extraordinary historic factory campus and the patrons, workers and tenants who again inhabit it. That is, we strive to make the whole cloth of art—making, presentation, and public participation—a seamless continuum.” I agree with every word of that, and would add this: in my admittedly limited experience, “modern art” has tended to be equated, by (it felt to me) the institutions and artists themselves, with “snobby and difficult to understand,” with an audience experience that is at least as uncomfortable or uncertain as it is engaged or (dare I say it) entertained. I was certainly challenged by much of what I encountered at Mass MOCA, but I was also consistently engaged and entertained, and I would say that complements the museum’s stated mission very nicely.
Those are reasons to visit Mass MOCA any time, but I have to add one reason to go within the next few weeks if you’re able: Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernández’s amazing exhibition “As Above So Below,” which runs through March. I’m a big believer in the power of words, but I don’t think my words here can begin to do justice to the unique and potent effect of Fernández’s works, especially when combined with Mass MOCA’s spaces and settings (with which Fernández clearly worked to plan and create a number of the works included in the exhibition). If you get a chance to see the exhibition, I can’t recommend it enough; if you don’t, there’s a video intro at this site, and apparently a 96-page hardcover accompanying catalogue you can try to get your hands on as well. But like Mass MOCA overall, this exhibition is particularly striking and special when you’re inside of it.
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February 24, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Celestials in North Adams

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
A reminder of a great historical novel, and a couple other thoughts about its contexts.
As part of last summer’s Beach Reads series, I highlighted Karen Shepard’s wonderful historical novel The Celestials (2013). Shepard’s novel fictionalizes the historical experiences of a group of Chinese immigrant workers who were brought in as strikebreakers to work in a shoe factory in the small valley town of North Adams, Massachusetts (which is, contra my series introduction above, close to the Berkshire Mountains, but is I would argue not generally included in the region called The Berkshires). I can’t recommend Shepard’s novel strongly enough, for all the reasons I traced in the post hyperlinked under “historical novel The Celestials.” Here I wanted to complement that post and the novel with two other AmericanStudies contexts, one likewise part of Massachusetts history and the other further afield but deeply resonant as well.
For one thing, I believe those arriving Chinese workers could be productively compared to the young women who had come to work the Lowell Mills about half a century earlier. The Chinese workers were all young men, and certainly that gender difference contributed to distinct attitudes toward and treatments of both communities; but in many other ways, the two groups were very similar: very young, many experiencing their first time away from home and first shifts into the world of work; immigrants, dealing with culture shock and linguistic differences along with that new stage of life and work (many of the Lowell workers were Irish immigrants, so not as much of a language gap but a contrast nonetheless); and outsiders immersed in a new world, not a longstanding part of that community but living, studying, and socializing as well as working within that world. Far too often, as I argued at length in my last book, we have treated Chinese immigrants as fundamentally different from (for example) Irish arrivals—but the parallels are at least as strong as the distinctions, and a comparison of the North Adams factory workers to the Lowell mill ones illustrates the point nicely.
When it comes to what differentiated the Chinese workers from their Lowell counterparts, I would especially emphasize not culture, nor even gender, but rather the Chinese arrivals’ status (one I’m quite sure, as Shepard likewise argues, they did not know when they arrived) as strikebreakers. That difference reflects in large part the very different histories and realities of labor and activism in the 1870s than had been the case half a century earlier. And if we want to understand how that status and those histories might have impacted the Chinese community’s experiences in North Adams, I would recommend another work of American historical fiction, this one a visual text: John Sayles’s film Matewan (1987). In one of its main plot threads, Sayles’s film depicts the arrival to its West Virginia mining community of groups of African American and Italian immigrant workers brought in as strikebreakers; like the Chinese arrivals, these new workers are both cultural outsiders and occupying that complex middle ground between labor and management, and they experience initial violence and hostility as a result. Yet over time, both new groups become part of the broader community of mine workers in Matewan, changing the identity and culture of that town as a result—an effect I’m quite sure the Celestials produced in North Adams as well.
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Blackstone River Valley

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On two interesting comparisons for one of our newest National Parks.
Earlier this month, as a small part of a very large Congressional bill (the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015), the longstanding Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was upgraded, becoming (after a decade of efforts and activism) the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. As that second linked article suggests, the change is far more than semantic—gaining National Park status brings with it a great deal of development and support, linking the area to the National Park Service and turning it into much more of a organized and coherent entity than had been possible in the prior incarnation. The self-proclaimed (American) “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution,” an area running along the potent Blackstone River from Worcester all the way to Providence, Rhode Island (making it one of the few National Parks to span multiple states), will now be presented and interpreted in all its historical and social significance for generations to come.
The new park’s multi-state span is one of a few things that differentiate it from most of its fellow National Parks, but I would still highlight a couple of comparisons that can shed light on what and how this park might achieve its goals most effectively. Salem, Massachusetts is home to a wonderful park, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Featuring a dozen buildings, multiple wharfs, a reconstructed tall ship, and a number of other elements, the Salem Maritime park does an excellent job interpreting multiple centuries and stages of work, community, and life in the city and region. The Derby Wharf section alone includes all those centuries and stages in its different buildings and placards. Compared, for example, to battlefield national parks such as Gettysburg or Yorktown, which focus on a few days’ worth of historical events and issues, the Blackstone River Valley Park will have to cover more than a century of industrial and social history and culture, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site provides an excellent model for doing so successfully.
On the other hand, Salem Maritime occupies an area of a few square miles; the Blackstone River Valley Park will cover (as has the Heritage Corridor) a distance of some forty-five miles, to say nothing of how far it extends on both sides of the river. For a comparison with that element, I would turn to one of the national parks around which I grew up: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Drive, a winding, scenic road atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, travels more than 100 miles, and yet is all part of the same unified national park identity and interpretation, with its many distinct stops and areas comprising their own unique identities yet tied together consistently and coherently. While Shenandoah and Skyline focus much more on natural rather than historical or cultural subjects, this large yet linked and coherent park community offers a rich and successful model for how a park as spacious and far-reaching as Blackstone River Valley can move through its many different places and communities yet maintain that overarching sense identity and history. I’ll be interested to see how Blackstone River Valley takes its next steps!
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

February 21-22, 2015: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I repeated the series—as well as the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post. Here it is—and there’s plenty of room for more grievance-airing in comments!]
Following up Monday’s Breaking Bad post, Katharine Slater Tweets that “that tension between approval and critique you’ve identified definitely informs my own (non-)enjoyment of anti-hero narratives.”
Joe Bastian also left an extended comment on Monday’s post, detailing an alternative way to watch and analyze Breaking Bad.
That post also prompted an extended Facebook thread on non-favorite TV shows, featuring thoughts from Nancy Caronia, Craig Reid, and DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld among others.
Responding to Friday’s post on historical figures, Liz Covart highlights, “Benedict Arnold. I admire and dislike him.”
Michael Miles agrees with me on Rutherford B. Hayes.
Jason Herbert agrees with me on Andrew Jackson, and adds “Frederick Jackson Turner. Because if I have to read that Frontier Thesis one more time I’m going to go crazy.”
Maggi Smith-Dalton recounts that “a man yelled at me once when I mentioned my dislike of TR at a program we were giving.”
Andrea Grenadier agrees with Wednesday’s post on Emerson, writing, “In studying American philosophy, I found myself constantly exasperated by Emerson, his inconsistencies, and his general Emerson-ness.”
Other non-favorites:
Osvaldo Oyola writes that, “As an undergrad I once scandalized a prof by suggesting that Henry James needed a better editor, and that it could be me.”
Bryn Upton agrees, noting “I will never forgive Henry James for Portrait of a Lady.”
Jonathan Menon highlights, “Political corruption. Corrupt through and through. Money, money. Special interests, special interests. It’s outrageous.”
Irene Martyniuk writes, “I really dislike fan fiction. I’m on the side of Julian Barnes, who wrote in his rather smart Flaubert’s Parrot, ‘knit your own stuff.’ Yeah, the title of the book is part of the post-modern joke, but there it is. Of course, the magic of a book is that we fall in love with complex and interesting characters and want a book to keep going. A truly wonderful book is the one that leaves you bereft when it’s over because you must leave that world.  But to my mind, leave you must. If you are a creator, and that includes a writer, do the hard work and create your own world—one that other readers will sadly leave at the end of your text. Hmm, on the British side—I hate D.H. Lawrence. Too much patriarchal symbolic sex. Over and over—even turtle sex. No style, just sex. Sigh.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Any other non-favorites you want to share? Don’t keep ‘em in, that’s bad for your blood pressure!

Friday, February 20, 2015

February 20, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Low Five

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
Five historical figures with whom I have a bone—or a whole skeleton—to pick. To see the full x-ray, check out those posts!
2)      George Wallace
3)      Rutherford B. Hayes
4)      George McClellan and Andrew Johnson (two for the price of one!)
5)      Andrew Jackson
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben

PS. So bring it on: one more chance to air some grievances ahead of that weekend post!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 19, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Boxing

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On why AmericanStudiers can’t forget the sweet science, and why I wish we could.
If I were going to make the case for boxing’s crucial significance in American history and identity, I would start here: the story of African American life in the 20th century can be pretty succinctly told through the sequence of Jack Johnson to Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson. Or maybe I would note how many great films use boxing as a metaphor for American history and identity, from The Champ (1931) to On the Waterfront (1954), Raging Bull (1980) to Cinderella Man (2005), Rocky (1976) to Rocky Balboa (2006), and dozens more besides. Or maybe I’d talk about all the resonances of the Hurricane—the boxer, the song, the movie, the history. In any case, boxing and America seem profoundly and permanently intertwined.
I got a couple problems with that, though. For one thing, and it’s an obvious thing I guess but a hard one to get around, boxing is so thoroughly and unavoidably violent and destructive. I wrote a post in last year’s Super Bowl series on the necessary hypocrisy that comes with watching football these days, given what we have learned and continue to learn about the sport’s impacts on the bodies and (especially) brains of those playing it. Well, in the case of boxing such violent impact is not only part of the sport, it’s the most central and consistent part—and indeed, the point of the sport is for each participant to try to be more violent than his or her opponent, to damage that opponent sufficiently that he or she cannot continue. To be honest, the nickname “the sweet science” seems to me to exist in part to mask the fundamental reality that boxing is neither sweet nor scientific, but instead (or at least especially) a savage test of who can sustain the most violence and pain.
It’s hard for me to argue that such a sport should occupy a prominent role in 21st century American society and culture. Of course, it’s also undeniable that boxing has already lost much of its prior prominence, a change that has been due not to its violence (since the even more violent Ultimate Fighting is extremely popular at the moment) as much as to the impression that the sport is profoundly corrupt. And that’s my other problem with the role of boxing in narratives of American history and identity—we may have recently become more aware of the role that corrupt promoters and organizations, judges and paydays, and the like play in the world of boxing, but as far as I can tell those realities have been part of the sport for as long as it has existed. Of course America has always had its fair share of corruption and greed as well, but do we want a nationally symbolic sport that emphasizes those qualities? It’d be the equivalent of the Black Sox scandal being the norm in baseball, rather than a glaring exception. I can’t deny boxing’s role in our past and identity, but I can’t pretend I don’t find that more than a little disturbing.
Last non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

February 18, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Emerson and Thoreau

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On my issue with the Transcendentalists, their greatness notwithstanding.
When I did this series last year and asked for those crowd-sourced contributions, a number of people aired their grievances against those foundational 19th century American authors and philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I certainly get that perspective: not only because the two tended to write in that verbiose, long-winded, dense and demanding 19th century style that doesn’t exactly jump off the page (although Thoreau is much more readable than Emerson); but also because they’re both assigned and emphasized so consistently in American literature courses in both high school and college (including my own American Literature I survey, I’ll admit), and it’s hard not to get a bit tired of authors whom we encounter so frequently and of whom we’re told we have to think so highly. American Renaissance, yeah yeah, we’ve heard it all before.
The thing is, Emerson and Thoreau specifically, and the Transcendentalists more broadly, were precisely as pioneering and significant as we teachers like to go on about. We’ve recovered and remembered enough prior authors, artists, and voices that we can no longer make the case that American literature or culture started in their era; and we’ve similarly engaged with enough contemporaries of theirs, whether under-read Transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller and William Ellery Channing, much more popular writers like Fanny Fern and Harriet Beecher Stowe, or influential activists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, to recognize that they were only one part of a much broader and deeper cultural moment. But if America had a lot of literature and culture, writing and authors, before and during the Transcendentalists’ era, what it didn’t yet have was a homegrown philosophical grounding for that work, and a concurrent engagement with our national identity and community—and these thinkers, Emerson and Thoreau above all, provided that perspective.
So why am I including those two authors in my non-favorites series, you might ask? Because in their advancing of those philosophies and engagements, both Emerson and Thoreau tended to be a bit more preachy than I’d like. Of course arguing for ideas is a kind of preaching no matter what, and Emerson started his professional career as a preacher to boot. But I would argue that there’s a democratic form of preaching that implicates the author as much as his audience, and a contrasting hierarchical one in which the author has the answers and he’s trying to bring his audience to his level; and I’d locate Emerson and Thoreau in the latter category a good deal of the time. Take Thoreau’s stated goal, on the title page of Walden (1854), “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” It’s a great line, and I take his point, but who says that the neighbors are necessarily more asleep than the author, or any of us? Why can’t we see it as a collective awakening, something that we all share? I’d say we can and should, and that if Emerson and Thoreau had seen it that way a bit more often, they’d be even greater than they already are.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February 17, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Sinatra and Elvis

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On the differences between influential and interesting, and why even the former can be problematic.
It seems to me that you can’t tell the story of American popular music in the 20th century—and thus the story of American popular music period—without including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in prominent roles. Indeed, given each man’s forays into acting, entrepreneurship, and other cultural and social arenas, I’m not sure you could leave them out of a broader 20th century history of America either. In their own ways, and in their own particular, most successful periods (Sinatra’s career extended well into Presley’s, of course, but he was at his most successful in its first couple decades, between 1935 and about 1955; Presley rose to prominence in the mid 1950s and was at his peak from then until about 1970), the two artists dominated their respective musical genres time and again, leaving legacies that extend well beyond record sales or awards (although both are among the most successful artists of all time as measured in those ways as well).
So I wouldn’t necessarily argue with definitions of Sinatra and Elvis as among the most influential musical artists of all time (although I might, in a moment, argue that point too). But influential isn’t the same as interesting, and on that score both artists fall short for me. Partly that’s just about taste and how there’s, y’know, no accounting for it (de gustibus, non est disputandum, as our Roman friends knew); I’m not a big fan of either crooners or rockabilly, and thus likely outside of the ideal audience for either man’s biggest hits or signature styles. But my point here isn’t simply about my personal tastes, which I don’t expect are hugely interesting either—I’m thinking as well about the nature of the men’s mainstream popularity and prominence. Despite the unquestionable (if, in retrospect, very silly) controversy over Presley’s hips, that is, I would argue that both men succeeded as consistently as they did because they were largely unobjectionable, hitting cultural sweet spots with regularity in a way that doesn’t seem as interesting as artists who push the envelope or challenge norms.
Moreover, I’m not sure that describing these two artists as influential is entirely justified either. After all, a significant percentage of both men’s songs were written by other songwriters or were covers of other artists; clearly their stunning voices and signature styles played a prominent role in making the songs as successful as they were, but I don’t know that simply singing and performing someone else’s songs qualifies an artist as influential. To be clear, I’m not trying to rehash the old argument about Presley exploiting African American music; that issue is part of the Elvis story to be sure, but the truth is that a great deal of early rock and roll crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Instead, I’m simply trying to differentiate between what we might call performers and artists, and to argue that those whom we would locate in the former category (such as two men whose most consistent successes were as performers singing others’ words, or similarly as actors reciting others’ lines) might be more important than they were influential or interesting.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

Monday, February 16, 2015

February 16, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Breaking Bad

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On why the highly acclaimed show and I aren’t on the same page.
I know I’m in danger of losing my AmericanStudier card with this post, or at least losing the respect of a lot of the people whose opinions on TV and culture I greatly value. And to be clear, I’m not going to argue that Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s groundbreaking show about the gradual descent of a high school chemistry teacher into a life of drug-dealing, crime, and mayhem (a transformation, as Gilligan pitched it to AMC, “from Mr. Chips to Scarface”), wasn’t as well-made and –executed as everyone (including my favorite TV reviewer of all time) says it is. Indeed, from the couple of seasons that I’ve watched (I stopped at a certain point, for the reasons I’ll get to in a moment), I would agree that Breaking Bad was as well-acted, -written, and –directed as anything I’ve seen on TV, and represented a very unique twist on the anti-hero protagonist trend for sure.
Part of what make me and Breaking Bad not quite simpatico is as simple as that anti-hero trend, I suppose. Despite writing that linked post and the rest of a week’s series on House of Cards, for example, by the end of that current show’s second season I found myself much more frustrated than entertained by how thoroughly evil is its protagonist Frank Underwood—and yet how much the show expects and requires us to root for Frank nonetheless. That last part is my real problem with such anti-hero protagonists—that in many cases, including both Frank Underwood and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the audience is asked to root for them not as they strive for something better (which I would say of, for example, The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, even if he consistently fails in that pursuit), but instead in the depths of their anti-heroic and even evil activities. I can’t say for sure if Gilligan intended that effect, and the show’s eventually tragic ending would seem to argue that he didn’t; but I know that many of the responses to the show over the course of its run emphasized how “bad-ass” was the Scarface version of Walter White.
So the concept of a bad-ass bad guy as protagonist doesn’t speak to this optimistic AmericanStudier, no. But what about the overall arc, that Mr. Chips to Scarface transformation? After all, two of my favorite American films are The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, and a significant plot and thematic thread across both films is the transformation of good guys into bad (whether that’s Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in both films or Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone in the second film’s flashback sequences). Yet the same fundamental frame, when executed in a TV show, is far less compelling to me. And in analyzing that contrast, I would have to say that it boils down in many ways to generic differences between film and TV: the ways in which a two-hour film (or rather a few key scenes within it) can tell a particular kind of story, vs. the choices entailed in telling the same story across dozens of episodes in multiple seasons of a TV show. A good argument for how closely tied form is to content, and how much the former informs the way we experience and enjoy—or don’t enjoy—the latter.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 14-15, 2015: I Love Being an Uncle

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I’ve done the same this week, leading up to this special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and messages in comments!]
Last August I featured a week’s series on American uncles and aunts, inspired by my sister and brother-in-law’s impending parenthood. Well, I’m going to keep this special post short and sweet: in late October my sister had twins, Lila and Owen; they, their Mom and Dad, and everybody in the family are doing great. My 9 (!) years as a Dad convinces me that there’s no greater love than what we feel for our children—but being an uncle is pretty nice too! Happy first Valentine’s Day, Lila and Owen!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Loves or other Valentine’s messages you’d share?

Friday, February 13, 2015

February 13, 2015: I Love Magical Historic Sites

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I wanted to do the same this week, leading up to a special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and thoughts in comments!]
Flowers and chocolates are okay but pretty clichéd; for my money, you can’t do anything more romantic for Valentine’s Day than taking the one you love to a wonderful historic or cultural site. Here are five of my favorites, which will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog (and about which I won’t say any more, so you can use the time to prepare for your trip!):
1)      The Salem Witch Trials Memorial (I know Witch Trials might not seem romantic, but I don’t know any place in America I’d rather share with a loved one)
2)      The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (and especially that courtyard!)
3)      The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (which is even more awesome if you share those details about Saint-Gaudens)
4)      Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland (they’re on the same road!)
5)      Angel Island and San Francisco’s Chinatown (okay, that’s more of a daytrip, but your love would be impressed by the effort)
Special post this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Loves of yours you’d share?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

February 12, 2015: I Love Writing Book Reviews

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I wanted to do the same this week, leading up to a special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and thoughts in comments!]
In the last few years, I’ve had the chance to review a number of great scholarly books for various journals and sites. Each time I’ve learned so much from both the book and the experience of creating a review of and response to it, and I’m really grateful for each and every such chance. Here are the focal points for my five reviews to date (the last two are to-be-written, so I’m just highlighting the books at this point):
1)      James Salazar’s Bodies of Reform (2010) and Andrew Taylor’s Thinking America (2010): I reviewed these two impressive works of American Studies scholarship for my first review, which was published in American Literature in 2011. The two represent very different scholarly strains—cultural studies and intellectual history, respectively—but as I wrote in that review complement each other very nicely, offering a wonderful perspective on 19th and early 20th century America in the process.
2)      Matthew Rebhorn’s Pioneer Performances (2012): I reviewed Rebhorn’s groundbreaking book for American Literary History’s forthcoming, online-only review series. I’ll update this post when the site and review appear, but in the meantime will note that I learned a great deal from every chapter of Rehborn’s book about American drama, 19th century culture and society, and images and narratives of the frontier.
3)      Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country (2013): My review of Grewal’s autoethnographic and interdisciplinary study of Muslim American identities, communities, histories, religion, multimedia texts, and more is forthcoming in the Spring 2015 issue of American Studies. I’d put this book alongside Borderlands/La Frontera as an autoethnographic analysis of such topics, and that’s very high praise indeed.
4)      Sarah Roth’s Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture (2014): I’ll be reviewing Roth’s book this spring for the Journal of Southern History.
5)      Alysson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile (2014): And I’ll also be reviewing Hobbs’s book this spring for the American Book Review.
Next love tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Loves of yours you’d share?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

February 11, 2015: I Love American Historical Films

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I wanted to do the same this week, leading up to a special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and thoughts in comments!]
On three great historical films you can watch right now on NetFlix (and are still worth seeking out if you don’t have a subscription):
1)      John Sayles’ Amigo (2010): The only film I know about one of the least remembered American histories, our military occupation of the Philippines. And a funny, nuanced, passionate, and moving movie in its own right.
2)      Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997): Not a perfect movie by any means, but for my money the best film about slavery until 12 Years a Slave came along. I would definitely argue it should be better remembered than more famous and flawed Spielberg films like E.T.
3)      The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Of course I think the novel is better, but the film is pretty impressive and important in its own right (and, yes, Springsteen had only seen the film at the time that he wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” although he did get to Steinbeck’s novel eventually). Not sure there’s a better American performance than Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
If you watch any or all of these great movies, come back and share your thoughts in comments, please!
Next love tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Loves of yours you’d share?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

February 10, 2015: I Love David Simon’s Perspective

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I wanted to do the same this week, leading up to a special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and thoughts in comments!]
Two obvious reasons and a less famous one why I can’t get enough of David Simon’s take on America.
1)      The Wire: ‘Cause duh. Also duh. And—nah, if you haven’t seen the greatest TV show in history yet, I don’t want to waste more of your time reading! Finish this post (if you would), then go find yourself a way to start watching The Wire (which was recently re-released in HD for HBO Go; I have mixed feelings about the change, but it does mean that it’s readily available for viewing in various ways). You’ll thank me!
2)      New Orleans: When it comes to what I just wrote in item 1, I have to admit that I’m a hypocrite—lots of friends and colleagues have insisted over the last few years that I watch Simon’s show Treme, and yet I haven’t gotten around to doing so. I will, I promise (and I imagine there’ll be an update here when I do)—but even before I do so, I can note how much I agree with Simon about the amazing, unique, profound Americanness of the Big Easy. I don’t know another city or place like it, and I know we wouldn’t be the same nation without it. Nice to see it get some love from one of our greatest storytellers!
3)      The Blog: This one might come as a bit of a surprise, since I’m a self-confessed optimist and Simon named his website/blog “The Audacity of Despair.” I’m not sure I quite believe him—The Wire, for example, is consistently dark but (I would argue) defined at least as much by the possibility of hope (difficult and uncertain and rare as it may be). But in any case, Simon’s blog is one of the most consistently intelligent, funny, pointed, moving, and just so damn well-written things out there, in any medium and form, and one that every American should be reading. What’s not to love?!
Next love tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Loves of yours you’d share?
PPS. Since I wrote this post, I've started watching season one of Treme--and yup, it's as good as I had hoped!

Monday, February 9, 2015

February 9, 2015: I Love Attica Locke’s Mysteries

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve dedicated my Valentine’s week series to highlighting some American loves of mine. I wanted to do the same this week, leading up to a special weekend post on a new love. I’d love for you to share your own Valentine’s loves and thoughts in comments!]
On the wonderful first two novels by a new favorite author.
Attica Locke’s debut novel, Black Water Rising (2009), was the best book I read in 2014. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as it was shared with me by my favorite writer and book-recommender. But while I knew that meant it would be a good read, I was expecting just that: an entertaining and well-done mystery novel (which would have been more than enough, to be clear). And Black Water Rising is a hell of a lot more than that—I’m not going to spoil any of its particulars here, but will simply say that the book is not only a great mystery and thriller, but also a multi-generational historical novel (one with a lot to say about both the 1980s and the 1960s), a socially realistic depiction of issues such as race, labor, and the rise of the oil industry in Houston and the South, a potent and moving portrayal of family and parenting, and a lot more besides. If you want to know the rest, you know what LeVar Burton would tell you to do!
I just got Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season (2012), as a holiday present, and I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet (too busy writing and scheduling future blog posts before the new semester begins, natch). But I can tell you for sure that no matter how it ends, Cutting Season retains all those elements and adds the histories and legacies of slavery for good measure; the novel reads like a combination of Black Water Rising and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), one of my favorite American novels of all time. I would have said it was impossible for Locke to improve upon Black Water, but it seems clear to me that she has indeed taken a significant step forward, engaging more broadly and deeply with American history and identity without losing a bit of what makes her books so engaging and compelling.
Locke’s third novel, Pleasantville, is due out this coming April, and is apparently a direct sequel to Black Water Rising, featuring its lawyer protagonist Jay Porter in a mystery set fifteen years after the end of that prior book (slight but not hugely significant spoilers for Black Water at that link). I’m excited to see where Locke takes Jay this time, and what she might be adding to her repertoire with this next book. But at this point, I also have to agree with Dennis Lehane: “I’d probably read the phone book if her name were on the spine.” When I find an author about whom I feel that way, well, that’s one of the things I love best about reading and culture.
Next love tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Loves of yours you’d share?
PPS. Since I wrote this post, I finished Cutting Season, and loved it as well--especially for its powerful evocations of the legacies, settings, and stories of slavery in our own moment and lives.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

February 7-8, 2015: Crowd-sourced Conspiracies

[Americans sure can believe some cray cray things. That’s right, I said cray cray. In this week’s series, I’ve AmericanStudied five such conspiracy theories, past and present. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the suspicious contributions of fellow AmericanStudies—add your craziness in comments, please!]
Following up on the series overall, Sam Southworth writes, “Near and dear to my heart. I always attempt to eschew conspiracy thinking and discourage it among students because it just seems like an awfully busy way to encourage sloppy thinking habits. But I certainly agree that a great deal can be gleaned by paying attention to the theories and what they say about the people who adopt them, often without much due diligence. Ufology (as it is termed) and JFK-ery would be just the right place to start, and I have labored in both vineyards. The UFO field is just so fragmented and peculiar! Evidence? Slight. Fervor of true believers? Verging on unhinged. And there are some very strange tales out there, for sure. My preference is for caves, tunnels and underground bases, such as (supposedly) Dulce, NM, and Montauk on eastern Long Island.”
Angela Allan adds, “Area 51? JFK? Moon landing? Birthers? Truthers? Antivaxxers? So many scary options.”
Andrea Grenadier notes, Just yesterday, I met a very interesting guy over at GW in computer science, who is tracing rumors, their beginnings, and why they never seem to die. The prime example: Obama is a secret Muslim. Other conspiracy theories: that Elvis really isn't dead, and that the Holocaust was a hoax so we could get a cool, new country called Israel.”
Heather Urbanski connects such theories to current pop culture, joking that “all the hours watching Marvel CU and Ancient Aliens has sated my conspiracy needs.”
Rob Gosselin highlights a brand-new conspiracy theory, about last Sunday’s Super Bowl. Rob also follows up Wednesday’s moon landing post, saliently joking, “I heard they are keeping the props and all the other evidence of the staged moon landing in a hanger at area 51. That's also where the tunnel is that leads to the center of the hollow earth.”
Osvaldo Oyola responds to that post as well, highlighting “the brilliant film Room 237, which is in part about the belief that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing.”
Finally, Andre Carrington’s response highlights both the radioactive and undeniable nature of the week’s topic: “I don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole, except to say that conspiracy theories are terribly widespread.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other conspiracy theories you’d highlight?