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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June 30, 2015: The 4th in Focus: Born on the 4th of July



[To celebrate another 4th of July, a series on different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to a special July 4th post this weekend!]
On three evolutions of a classic, complex American phrase.
To my knowledge, the phrase “born on the 4th of July” first appeared in “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (usually known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”), a song that first appeared in George M. Cohan’s musical Little Johnny Jones (1904) and became most famous through James Cagney’s performance of it (as Cohan himself) in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In this context, the phrase is a straightforward as it seems, capturing the speaker’s stereotypical all-American identity, an unironic embrace of the mythology that is amplified by every line in Cohan’s song: “I’m glad I am/So’s Uncle Sam”; “Yanks through and through/Red, white, and blue”; “A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam”; and so on. I suppose it’s possible to read the song’s question about this identity—“Oh say can you see/Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?”—as a recognition of its over-the-top embrace of stereotypical patriotism, but I don’t know that anything in the song, musical, or Cohan’s career and work warrants that kind of ironic reading.
At the other end of the irony spectrum is the use of Cohan’s phrase in a searing autobiographical work published in the nation’s bicentennial year: Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Kovic, a Vietnam veteran turned antiwar protester, was indeed born on July 4th, 1946; but in his memoir that coincidence becomes a multi-layered metaphor for both the myths and ideals that contributed to his volunteering for service during the Vietnam War and the realities and gaps of his experiences in that conflict and upon his return home as a wounded veteran. As he puts it in a new introduction for a 2005 re-issue of the book, “I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war, … not the myth we had grown up believing.” While the myths of war about which Kovic writes were no doubt due in part to the very specific, post-World War II context of his birth and childhood, they’ve also been a part of our national mythos since the war with which our nation originated, a connection captured potently by Kovic’s evocation of July 4th.
Oliver Stone’s award-winning 1989 film version of Born on the Fourth of July, adapted for the screen by Kovic himself (along with Stone), certainly represents another evolution of the phrase, one in which it ironically returned to a Cohanesque mainstream popular culture prominence (thanks in no small measure to the film’s breakout performance by its movie star leading man). Yet I want to highlight as well a more recent use of the phrase, one that exemplifies a more detached, less socially critical form of irony. In a middle verse of The Killer’s song “Sam’s Town” (2006), which opens their concept album of the same name, the speaker portrays his family’s iconic American identity thusly: “I still remember Grandma Dixie’s wake/I’d never really known anybody to die before/Red, white, and blue upon a birthday cake/My brother he was born on the fourth of July and that’s all.” Coupled with a preceding line, “Running through my veins an American masquerade,” this verse seems to offer the first steps toward a layered critique of American mythology to complement Kovic’s. Yet while the remainder of Sam’s Town is engaging rock and roll, socially or historically aware it is not—and indeed, the band’s frontman Brandon Flowers critiqued Green Day’s American Idiot album and tour for attacking America. By the 21st century, perhaps, the phrase “born on the fourth of July” has come to capture most fully the cypher that is American popular culture.
Next 4th focus tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?

Monday, June 29, 2015

June 29, 2015: The 4th in Focus: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”



[To celebrate another 4th of July, a series on different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to a special July 4th post this weekend!]
On the stunning speech that challenges us as much today as it did 150 years ago.
I’ve written many times, in this space and elsewhere, about the inspiring history of Quock Walker and his Revolutionary-era peers. Walker, his fellow Massachusetts slaves, and the abolitionist activists with whom they worked used the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence in support of their anti-slavery petitions, and in so doing contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more inspiring application of our national ideals, or of a more compelling example of my argument (made in the second hyperlinked piece above) that black history is American history. Yet at the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to claim that Walker’s case was a representative one, either in his era or at any time in the two and a half centuries of American slavery; nor I would I want to use Walker’s successful petition as evidence that the Declaration’s “All men are created equal” sentiment did not in a slaveholding nation include a central strain of hypocrisy.
If I ever need reminding of that foundational American hypocrisy, I can turn to one of our most fiery texts: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass’s speech is long and multi-layered, and I don’t want to reduce its historical and social visions to any one moment; but I would argue that it builds with particular power to this passage, one of the most trenchant in American oration and writing: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?” The subsequent second half of the speech sustains that perspective and passion, impugning every element of a nation still entirely defined by slavery and its effects. Despite having begun his speech by noting his “quailing sensation,” his feeling of appearing before the august gathering “shrinkingly,” Douglass thus builds instead to one of the most full-throated, confident critiques of American hypocrisy and failure ever articulated.
As an avowed and thoroughgoing optimist, it’s far easier for me to grapple with Quock Walker’s use of the Declaration and the 4th of July than with Douglass’s—which, of course, makes it that much more important for me to include Douglass in my purview, and which is why I wanted to begin this week’s series with Douglass’s speech. There’s a reason, after all, why the most famous American slave is undoubtedly Harriet Tubman—we like our histories overtly inspiring, and if we’re going to remember slavery at all, why not do so through the lens of someone who resisted it so successfully? Yet while Tubman, like Walker, is certainly worth remembering, the overarching truth of slavery in America is captured far better by Douglass’s speech and its forceful attention to our national hypocrises and flaws. And despite the ridiculous current attacks on “too negative” histories or “apologizing for America,” there’s no way we can understand our nation or move forward collectively without a fuller engagement wth precisely the lens provided by Douglass and his stunning speech.
Next 4th focus tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

June 27-28, 2015: June 2015 Recap



[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
June 1: Mount Auburn Connections: Origin Points: A series on the beautiful Cambridge site starts with three ways to contextualize its 19th century origins.
June 2: Mount Auburn Connections: Blanche Linden: The series continues with three inspiring sides to the cemetery’s most significant historian.
June 3: Mount Auburn Connections: Robert Gould Shaw: What his Mount Auburn memorial adds to our collective memories of the abolitionist and Civil War colonel, as the series rolls on.
June 4: Mount Auburn Connections: Mary Baker Eddy: How her memorial helps us live out the best legacy of a controversial 19th century figure.
June 5: Mount Auburn Connections: Cemeteries and the Past: The series concludes with two overt ways and one more subtle one that cemeteries can help us remember.
June 6-7: Crowd-sourced Spring Walks: Lots more spring walks and sites shared by fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!
June 8: North Carolina Stories: Wilmington and Hope: A Tarheel series starts with the paradoxical but vital urgency of hope.
June 9: North Carolina Stories: Thomas Wolfe: The series continues with the ironically forgotten novelist and why we should remember and read him.
June 10: North Carolina Stories: Duke Lacrosse: The pendulum, the benefit of the doubt, and the role of public scholars, as the series rolls on.
June 11: North Carolina Stories: North Carolina Basketball: On schadenfreude and the worst and best of collegiate athletics.
June 12: North Carolina Stories: Moral Mondays: The series concludes with two complex contexts for the inspiring current protest movement.
June 13-14: Playing a Significant Role: In honor of my best friend’s birthday, a special post on role-playing games and their stigmas and value.
June 15: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Killing Mister Watson: My annual Beach Reads series kicks off with the atmospheric historical thriller that’s also a lot more.
June 16: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Pleasantville: The series continues with a new novel that literally forced its way onto my summer reading list.
June 17: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Alexie’s Diary: Three things to know about Sherman Alexie’s young adult classic, as the series rolls on.
June 18: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Big Man: The autobiography as messy and entertaining as its larger-than-life author.
June 19: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: A Tragic, Compelling Life: The series concludes with a recent book that makes the case for why we should and must get serious at the beach.
June 20-21: Crowd-sourced Responses to the Charleston Terrorist Attack: Following up the horrific terrorist attack as Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME church, a handful of the best public scholarly responses to the killings—please add your thoughts and links in comments!
June 22: Gordon Parks and America: A Stunning Exhibition: A series inspired by the current, wonderful MFA exhibition opens with a few thoughts on the exhibition’s stunning photos.
June 23: Gordon Parks and America: A Photographer’s Life: The series continues with three impressive and exemplary projects from Parks’ long career.
June 24: Gordon Parks and America: The Learning Tree: Remembering Parks’ autobiographical novel and even more groundbreaking film version, as the series rolls on.
June 25: Gordon Parks and America: Shaft: How Parks helps us understand the problems and the possibilities of the blaxsploitation genre.
June 26: Gordon Parks and America: Portrait Photos and the Past: The series concludes with some reflections on what portraits can’t teach us about the past, and what they 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!