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Monday, March 4, 2024

March 4, 2024: National Park Studying: Yosemite

[On March 3rd, 1849, Congress created a new federal government agency, the Department of the Interior. One of the department’s most significant focal points has become the National Park System, so this week I’ll celebrate Interior’s 175th birthday by AmericanStudying a handful of our great Parks, leading up to a post on National Historical Parks!]

On six figures who help narrate the unfolding history of an early National Park.

1)      Chief Tenaya and Lafayette Bunnell: The first European Americans that we know for sure entered California’s Yosemite Valley were a battalion of US Army soldiers led by Major James Savage; the so-called Mariposa Battalion were chasing Ahwahneechee Chief Tenaya and his forces as part of 1851 military efforts to destroy the area’s Native American communities. That’s a pretty bleak starting point for a US relationship to Yosemite, but it didn’t go entirely unchallenged—traveling with the battalion was Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, and the physician would go on to interview Tenaya at length, learn the region’s name and history from him, and eventually author the book Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 which Led to that Event (1880). Bunnell of course was wrong to call it a “discovery,” a choice that reflected and reinforced a Eurocentric view of the region to be sure. But his book helped make more Americans aware of this beautiful and important space, and was a crucial step toward conservation.

2)      John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson: As with virtually all of the late 19th century’s conservation efforts, the push to preserve Yosemite was led by the Scottish-born naturalist, scientist, and activist John Muir. Muir became enamored of Yosemite at a young age, writing frequently about the region’s wonders and even helping develop (in his first published work!) the controversial (and now widely accepted) theory that they had been created by alpine glaciers. But Muir alone could not persuade the federal government to help conserve Yosemite, and thankfully he had help from other prominent Americans who shared his views. Chief among them was Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the era’s most famed literary figures (he edited Century Magazine among many other roles); Johnson camped in Yosemite with Muir in 1889 and went on to help him successfully lobby Congress to pass the October 1, 1890 Act that created Yosemite National Park. Their partnership exemplifies the best of the nascent Progressive Era and of how allies from different communities can help advance causes of environmental justice.

3)      Ansel Franklin Hall and Rosalie Edge: National Park status ensures a certain level of conservation and protection, but of course doesn’t necessarily guarantee enough travel and support to keep a park thriving beyond that starting point. One of the most important figures in the park’s early years, Park Naturalist (and later the National Park Service’s first Chief Naturalist) Ansel Franklin Hall, was crucial in moving the park in those directions: he founded the Yosemite Museum (which featured Native American craftspeople and interpreters), developed numerous interpretive programs, and edited the 1921 Handbook of Yosemite National Park. Complementing Hall’s efforts from inside the park were those of external advocates like Rosalie Edge, creator and head of the National Audobon Society’s Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC); in 1937, Edge lobbied Congress to purchase 8000 acres of forest on the park’s edge that were scheduled to be logged, making them part of the park’s expanding identity instead. Thanks to Hall, Edge, and their peers, Yosemite not only endured but expanded and thrived throughout the 20th century, and remains a vital American space and destination into the 21st.

Next Park tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other National Parks you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 2, 2024

March 2-3, 2024: February 2024 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

February 5: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Boys and Bears: This year’s Super Bowl series focused on sports films, starting with our problematic obsession with lovable losers.

February 6: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy: The series continued with the untold histories behind stories of underdog champions.

February 7: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s): What the changes between a film and its remake can tell us about American narratives, as the series plays on.

February 8: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook: The interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a deeply conventional genre.

February 9: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Remember the Titans: The series concludes with the over-the-top scene and speech that really shouldn’t work, but somehow do.

February 10-11: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: My Pitch!: A special follow-up with my pitch for a sports movie adapting one of our most inspiring histories!

February 12: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “At Last”: With love in the air, this year’s Valentine’s series focused on love songs, kicking off with the biographical and cultural layers to a timeless classic.

February 13: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “Wake Up Little Susie”: The series continues with the boundary between innocence and sex in early rock and roll, and a song that cut across it.

February 14: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “You Can’t Hurry Love”: What’s special about one of Motown’s countless classic love songs, as the series serenades on.

February 15: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “Storybook Love”: A beautiful example of a film love song that’s about both the movie and the romance.

February 16: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “Happy”: Couldn’t get through the week without some Bruce, and here’s my favorite of his many great “adult love songs.”

February 17-18: AmericanStudying Love Songs: Five New Classics: The series concludes with five 21st century love songs sure to become classics!

February 19: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Jefferson and Banneker: For this year’s non-favorites series I focused on moments when generally impressive figures gave in to white supremacy, starting with a Framer’s frustratingly racist response.

February 20: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Lincoln’s Mass Execution: The series continues with two ways in which our greatest president gave in to white supremacist violence and exclusion.

February 21: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Anthony’s Priorities: A collective and an individual frustration with an inspiring figure’s worst quote, as the series gripes on.

February 22: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Harlan’s Exclusions: A history and a contemporary lesson from an iconic Justice’s prejudices.

February 23: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: London’s Fighting Words: The series concludes with an ugly moment when white supremacy trumped athletic supremacy.

February 24-25: Biden and Anti-Immigrant Narratives: A special follow-up post, highlighting a thread where I critiqued our current president’s embrace of xenophobia.

February 26: Leap Years: 1816: For this once-every-four-years occasion, a Leap Year Studying series kicks off with three 1816 trends.

February 27: Leap Years: 1848: The series continues with how three distinct events within a 10-day period in early 1848 changed the world.

February 28: Leap Years: 1904: Five of the many cultural legacies of the 1904 World’s Fair, as the series leaps on.

February 29: Leap Years: 1948: A couple significant 1948 election contexts beyond the justifiably famous “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

March 1: Leap Years: 1984 in Film: The series and month conclude with how three 1984 blockbusters reflect 80s debates.

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, March 1, 2024

March 1, 2024: Leap Years: 1984 in Film

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

How three of the year’s many blockbuster films reflect 1980s debates.

1)      Ghostbusters: I said much of what I’d want to say about Ghostbusters’ fraught relationship between science and the supernatural in that hyperlinked post. But it’s also worth stressing, as I did briefly there too, that the film’s conflicts also and perhaps ultimately boil down to the government vs. private citizens, with the film’s sympathies entirely resting with the latter community. In that way, Ghostbusters can be seen as an extension of Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” With which, when it comes to William Atherton’s deeply annoying EPA agent Walter Peck, it’s difficult to argue.

2)      Beverly Hills Cop: The central conflicts in Eddie Murphy’s star-making action-comedy are distinct from, and to my mind a lot more complicated than, those in Ghostbusters. On the surface, those conflicts are the titular ones related to class and setting, as Murphy’s working-class cop (Axel Foley) from the working-class mecca of Detroit finds himself pursuing criminals in the nation’s most famously wealthy, elite location. But it’s impossible to separate those contrasts from issues of race, not least because Murphy’s character focuses a good bit on how he is perceived and treated as a black man in the largely white world of Beverly Hills. And yet, he eventually achieves his goals by partnering with a white Beverly Hills cop (Judge Reinhold’s Billy Rosewood), a relationship that crosses all these boundaries and (in the long tradition of buddy cop films) models a more productive form of community.

3)      Footloose: Kevin Bacon’s star-making film presents a somewhat similar fish-out-of-water scenario, but in a very different direction: in this case the boy from the big city finds himself in a far more isolated and conservative small town, one where concerns of morality (guided by John Lithgow’s minister character) have led to bans of both rock and roll music and dancing. Lithgow is a talented actor and so imbues that character and perspective with more depth and humanity than might otherwise have been the case, giving us a sense of why someone (and thus why an entire community) might pursue these extremist practices. More broadly, I think the film reflects an emerging division that has only become more pronounced in the 35 years since, a vision of a nation in which urban and rural communities seem defined by not only distinct but contrasting values and identities. If only we had Kevin Bacon’s charismatic Ren to teach us all to dance together!

February Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

Thursday, February 29, 2024

February 29, 2024: Leap Years: 1948

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On a couple significant election contexts beyond “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Don’t get me wrong—“Dewey Defeats Truman” was a unique historical moment, and the shot of a jubilant Truman holding a copy of that November 3rd Chicago Tribune is one of the more rightfully iconic 20th century photographs. The moment also reminds us of just how much American newspapers have always been affiliated with partisan politics: the Tribune was a solidily Republican-leaning paper with no love lost for the incumbent Democrat, and its choice to allow veteran political analyst Arthur Sears Henning’s electoral prediction to determine their next day’s front page (the paper went to press prior to the close of polls on the West coast) was no doubt due at least in part to editorial wishful thinking. It’s easy to decry the partisanship of contemporary newspapers and news media (for more on which see this post), but in truth that’s been part of their identity throughout American history.

But even if the Tribune had gotten its prediction right, the 1948 presidential election would still be a hugely significant one. For one thing, there was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and his third-party run as a Dixiecrat (or, officially, States’ Rights Democrat). Few American histories have been more influential than the long, gradual realignment of politics, race, and region, a story that starts as far back as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and extends right up to our present moment. Yet despite that century and a half long arc, the splintering of the Democratic Party at the 1948 national convention represents a striking and singular moment, a fulcrum on which those political and social realities permanently shifted. There were all sorts of complicating factors, not least Thurmond’s own secrets and hypocrises when it came to race—but at the broadest level, few election-year moments have echoed more dramatically than did the Dixiecrat revolt.

For another thing, both Truman and Dewey used the mass media in an unprecedented way in the campaign’s closing weeks. The two campaigns created short newsreel films that were played in movie theaters across the country, reach an estimated 65 million filmgoers each week. The first televised 1960 debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often described as the first national political moment of the media age—or even as a moment that “changed the world”—and certainly its live broadcast to a national audience represented something new in American electoral politics. But since so much of politics in the media age has not been live, has instead comprised constructed and produced media images and narratives, it’s fair to say that Truman’s and Dewey’s competing movies likewise foreshadowed a great deal of what was to come in the subsequent half-century and more of elections.

Last leap year studying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

February 28, 2024: Leap Years: 1904

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On five of the many cultural legacies of the 1904 World’s Fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in St. Louis.

1)      Fair Foods: As is often the case with large public events like fairs, the 1904 World’s Fair didn’t necessarily debut many of its striking innovations, but it did feature them and thus bring them to more widespread attention. That was never more true than with its culinary highlights, a partial list of which includes: hamburgers and hot dogs, ice cream cones, cotton candy, Dr. Pepper and 7Up sodas, and Puffed Wheat cereal. Visitors to this epic fair could truly eat their way into American history!

2)      Flight: The Wright Brothers’ first manned flight had taken place less than six months before the fair’s April 30th opening, and as you’d expect flight became a central focus for the fair’s exhibits. That included the famous “Airship Contest,” which promised a $100,000 prize (nearly $3 million in our current society) to any flying machine which could successfully navigate the “Aeronautic Concourse” while traveling at 15 miles per hour or higher. Although no vehicle won the prize, the fair did feature a ground-breaking act of flight, as Thomas Scott Baldwin and Roy Knabenshue’s dirigible became the first such airship to fly in public.

3)      The Summer Olympics: The modern version of the Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, and the second games were held in conjunction with the 1900 Paris Exposition. So it made sense that the first games held outside of Europe would be similarly paired with the 1904 Fair, but in fact Chicago was initially awarded the 1904 games and they were only moved to St. Louis when the fair organizers threatened to hold an alternate contest. Partly for that reason, and partly because St. Louis was more difficult to reach, Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin did not attend, nor did many international athletes (nearly 600 of the 651 competing athletes came from North America). But holding the games outside Europe at all, and in the US specifically, was a significant step nonetheless, and one tied to the 1904 World’s Fair.

4)      Kate Chopin: Chopin, one of America’s most talented turn of the 20th century authors and both a native and longtime resident of St. Louis, was only 54 when she attended the fair on August 20th (she had bought a season ticket and had attended many prior times as well). That day was one of the hottest of the summer, however, and that night Chopin called her son complaining of a severe headache. It is believed that she had a cerebral hemorrhage; the next day she fell unconscious, and she died without waking on August 22nd. She would be prominently buried in the city’s Calvary Cemetery, one more reflection—as was the World’s Fair itself—of the deep interconnections between St. Louis and this ground-breaking literary voice.

5)      “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”: I don’t want to end on that tragic note, so here’s one more way the World’s Fair continued to echo into American culture long after it closed its gates on December 1st. The aforementioned song was written in response to the fair and recorded by many artists over the years (perhaps the first being Billy Murray’s version, recorded while the fair was still ongoing), but became especially prominent through Judy Garland’s performance in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Thanks to that film, and the late 20th century Broadway musical adaptation of the same title, the 1904 World’s Fair seems destined to stay in our collective memories beyond even these various, striking influences.

Next leap year studying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

February 27, 2024: Leap Years: 1848

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On how three distinct events within a 10-day period helped change America and the world.

On January 24th, 1848, James Wilson Marshall found gold on the property of Johann/John Sutter’s in-construction sawmill on the American River near the small town of Coloma, California. Marshall had been gradually migrating West from his New Jersey birthplace since 1834, and in 1845 reached the settlement of Sutter’s Fort, a cross-cultural outpost in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Sutter, the town founder and alcalde, employed Marshall to help run his businesses, although that work was interrupted by Marshall’s 1846-1847 service in John C. Frémont’s California Battalion during the Mexican American War (the end of which, on which more in a moment, brought California into the United States). When Marshall returned he began work helping construct a new sawmill for Sutter, and in the process he found gold in the river nearby. Over the next two years the resulting Gold Rush would bring hundreds of thousands of settlers to California, both from elsewhere in the US and from around the world, and forever change the arc of American and world history.

Just a week after Marshall’s earth-shattering find, his former military commander received far less positive news. Frémont, whose Mexican American War activities were controversial to say the least, had been undergoing a military trial for charges of mutiny, disobedience of orders, and other related offenses since his August 1847 arrest at Fort Leavenworth, and on January 31st, 1848 he was court-martialed on the charges of disobedience toward a superior officer and military misconduct. President James Polk, who had been president and thus commander-in-chief throughout the war and Frémont’s activities, granted him a partial pardon, commuting his dishonorable discharge and reinstating him into the army. But Frémont found that outcome unsatisfactory and resigned his commission, moving back to California and continuing to lead exploratory excursions there (while also profiting from the Gold Rush, natch). In 1850 he became one of the first two Senators from California, running as a Free Soil Democrat—and that splinter party’s evolution into the Republican Party took Frémont with it, and in 1856 he became the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, a vital step toward 1860, Abraham Lincoln, and the coming of the Civil War.

The Gold Rush and the Civil War were without question two of the most prominent American historical events of the mid-19th century; but just two days after Frémont’s court-martial, another, equally influential historical event took place: the February 2nd, 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I’ve written about that treaty and its pernicious (and ironic, given that the treaty itself guaranteed citizenship and rights for Mexican Americans who remained in the new US territories) effects for Mexican Americans many times, including in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column and this blog post (as well as this HuffPost piece on the best literary representation of the treaty and its effects, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don [1885]). But of course the treaty did not just affect those American communities—it also fundamentally reshaped the nation, not only through all the territories (and very quickly, in California’s case, states) it added to the US, but also through all the new communities (including Mexican Americans but also numerous native nations and Chinese Americans among others) it likewise made part of the expanding US. Few, if any, individual American days have had more lasting national significance.

Next leap year studying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

Monday, February 26, 2024

February 26, 2024: Leap Years: 1816

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On significant global, cross-cultural, and national trends within a single year.

You would think that a catastrophic historic phenomenon wherein the eruption of a volcano caused a drastic shift in global temperatures for an entire year would be at least somewhat well known. But speaking for myself, I only learned about the “Year without a Summer”—in which the record-breaking 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora caused severe climate change and freezing temperatures throughout 1816, leading to the even more evocative nickname “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”—just over a year ago, while researching this post on the Panic of 1819. But whether we remember it now or not, this global catastrophe had drastic effects throughout the world in 1816, including a number of important ones in the United States (along with the arc that culminated in the aforementioned 1819 panic): from the failure of corn crops throughout New England to the mass migrations to the Midwest that led to statehood for Indiana (in 1816) and Illinois (in 1818) to the eventual founding of the Mormon Church (as Joseph Smith’s family were one of countless residents who left Vermont farms during this year, in their case moving to the community of Palmyra, NY that would be so foundational in his personal and spiritual journey).

It’s hard to imagine that any other 1816 story could be as significant as that global and catastrophic one, but of course the year featured many other American events, including ones that likewise influenced ongoing histories and trends. A number of them reflected the complicated, evolving Early Republic relationship between the US government and Native American nations. For the first few decades after the Constitution, the federal government dealt with native nations in individual and distinct ways, treating them as the unique communities they were, and 1816 saw an exemplary (if as ever fraught) such moment: the August signing of the Treaty of St. Louis between the US government and the nations within the Three Fires Confederacy (the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi). Yet another 1816 treaty foreshadowed the drastic and tragic change in these US-native relationships: on March 22 the federal government signed a treaty with the Cherokee, agreeing to return land that had been illegally seized as part of an 1814 conflict between the US and the Creek nation; but General Andrew Jackson, who had been involved in that 1814 war, refused to honor the treaty, a blatant step toward his eventual, exclusionary presidential policy of Indian Removal.

Jackson would not be elected president until 1828, but 1816 saw its own influential presidential election (as has every American Leap Year since 1788). In that contest, James Monroe, who had been serving as Secretary of State in the administration of his fellow Virginian founder James Madison, received the Democratic-Republican nomination and handily bested the Federalist nominee, New York Senator (and also a Constitution signer) Rufus King. The size of Monroe’s victory was due in part to a splintering and disappearing Federalist Party: King would be the party’s last presidential nominee, and for the next few years the US had only one national political party, leading to the nickname “The Era of Good Feelings.” As I wrote in that hyperlinked post, there were of course tensions and divisions beneath that seeming unity, and many of them would coalesce ahead of Jackson’s 1828 election. Yet for at least a decade, the United States became a one-party system, another striking legacy of this important Leap Year.

Next leap year studying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?