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Thursday, July 7, 2022

July 7, 2022: 4th of July Contexts: Born on the 4th of July

[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]

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. [Although, as I’ve highlighted in this space, one of The Killers’ more recent songs and videos is overtly and stunningly political, so they seem to have evolved on this score.] 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.

Last July 4th context tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

July 6, 2022: 4th of July Contexts: Fireworks

[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]

On the history, symbolism, and limitations of an American tradition.

As detailed in this Slate article, the intersection of fireworks and the 4th of July literally goes back to the first, 1777 celebrations of the holiday (the first because in 1776 July 4th was the date of the Declaration’s actual dissemination and readings, rather than a holiday commemorating that occasion). I had more to say about the John Adams letter referenced in that piece in yesterday’s post, so here I’ll keep this paragraph short and say that you should certainly check out that Slate piece by senior editor Forrest Wickman for a clear, concise depiction of the longstanding histories (both American and international) of fireworks.

While fireworks might have been present from those earliest Independence Day celebrations on, however, I would argue that their July 4th symbolism really took hold after the War of 1812, and more exactly after Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the aftermath of the siege of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during that conflict. After all, the central image of our national anthem is a contrasting visual one, of seeing the flag through the darkness—eventually “by the dawn’s early light,” but even more importantly by the glow of “the bombs bursting in air” that “gave proof through the night.” It’s a compelling and powerful image, the idea of a light in the darkness that allows us to keep an eye on our national ideals. And whether fireworks actually create a flag of fiery lights (as they often do for the 4th) or simply burst in the night sky for our collective vision and inspiration, they capture this defining national image in a visceral and affecting way.

Visceral and affecting as fireworks might be, however, what they are not is thought-provoking; indeed, as with many spectacular entertainments, they require us not to think at all in order to get the most pleasure from their spectacle. To be clear, as a fan of Star Wars and the James Bond films, among many other spectacles, I don’t have any problem with such entertainments being part of our culture and society. But as a commemoration of our nation’s independence day, such a spectacle does seem to represent another example of what I’ve elsewhere described as the celebratory, easy form of patriotism, the kind that asks nothing more of us than our awed appreciation. So while such awe can and perhaps should be a part of our July 4th celebrations, I’d love if there were space as well for more reflective engagement with our history and community. Am I arguing for Frederick Douglass-shaped fireworks? Maybe not—but I could definitely get behind a brief reading from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” before every July 4th fireworks ceremony. Give it a couple years and it’d be just as much a part of the tradition as those fiery bombs bursting in air.

Next July 4th context tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

July 5, 2022: 4th of July Contexts: The Adams Letters

[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]

On the myths, and the realities, revealed about the Revolution and its leaders in the Adams letters.

Writing to his wife Abigail on July 3rd, 1776 (she was back at home in Braintree managing the family farm and raising their children), the day after the Continental Congress had drafted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams argued that “the Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epoch, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

On one level, the letter reveals just how much myth-making is inherent in any national celebration—we celebrate independence on July 4th because the Declaration was signed, dated, and sent out to the American public for the first time on that day; but Adams’ emphasis makes clear that the date was and is an arbitrary one, and of course that Revolutionary acts, like all historical moments, develop over time. On another level, however, Adams’ letter reveals quite impressively how aware the Congress was of the significance of what was happening: not only in his quite thorough prediction of the celebrations that would come to commemorate the event; but also in his recognition of all that would follow the Declaration. “You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” he wrote. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”

Reading the Adams’ correspondence offers even more Revolutionary realities than those. For one thing, it deeply humanizes the second President (and by extension all the framers); I defy anyone to read John’s heartfelt July 20th, 1776 letter of concern for both his ailing family and his own separation from them and not feel differently about the man and moment. For another, the letters provide a visceral and compelling argument for the Revolutionary era’s hugely impressive community of American women—Abigail was not as publicly minded as peers such as Judith Sargent Murray and Annis Boudinot Stockton, but she makes a thoroughly convincing case for what Murray called the equality of the sexes: in her overt arguments for such equality, but just as much in her intelligence, her eloquence, and her strength in supporting both the family and its business and her husband and the nation’s. Many of my posts in this space, like much of my writing and work everywhere, have sought to complicate our idealizing national myths, but the Adams letters remind us that some of our realities have been just as ideal.

Next July 4th context tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, July 4, 2022

July 4, 2022: 4th of July Contexts: Slavery and the Declaration

[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]

On important historical contexts for a frustrating founding text, and why the frustrations remain nonetheless.

In this July 4th, 2015 piece for Talking Points Memo, my second most-viewed piece in my year and a half of contributing bi-monthly columns to TPM, I highlighted and analyzed the cut paragraph on slavery and King George from Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. Rather than repeat what I said there, I’d ask you to take a look at that piece (or at least the opening half of it, as the second half focuses on other histories and figures) and then come back here for a couple important follow-ups.

Welcome back! As a couple commenters on that post noted (and as I tried to discuss further in my responses to their good comments), I didn’t engage in the piece with a definitely relevant historical context: that the English Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had in November 1775 issued (from on board a warship anchored just off the Virginia coast) a prominent Proclamation both condemning Virginian and American revolutionaries, declaring martial law in the colony, and offering the prospect of freedom to any African American enslaved people who left their owners and joined the English forces opposing them. A number of enslaved people apparently took Dunmore up on the offer, and so when Jefferson writes that “he [King George] is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us,” he might have been attributing the idea to the wrong Englishman but was generally accurate about those English efforts. Yet of course Jefferson’s misattribution is no small error, as it turns a wartime decision by one English leader (and a somewhat unofficial one at that, as it’s not at all clear to me that Dunmore had the authority to make such an offer nor that the Crown would necessarily or consistently have upheld it) into a defining feature of the relationship between England and the colonies.

There are significantly bigger problems with Jefferson’s paragraph than that misattribution, however. And to my mind, by far the biggest is his definition of African American enslaved people as a foreign, “distant people,” not simply in their African origins (and of course many late 18th century enslaved people had been born in the colonies) but in their continued identity here in America. Moreover, Jefferson describes this distant people as having been “obtruded” upon the colonists, an obscure word that means “to impose or force on someone in an intrusive way.” And moreover moreover, Jefferson then directly contrasts the enslaved people’s desire for liberty with the colonists’ Revolutionary efforts (and thus their desire for liberty), a philosophical opposition that excludes these Americans from the moment and its histories just as fully as his definitions and descriptions exclude them from the developing American community. As I’ve highlighted in many different pieces over the years, a number of prominent enslaved people—from Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley to Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker—had already proved and would continue to prove Jefferson quite wrong. But for as smart and thoughtful a person as TJ, it shouldn’t have required such individuals to help him see how much African American enslaved people were an integral, inclusive part of Revolutionary Virginia and America.

Next July 4th context tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 2, 2022

July 2-3, 2022: June 2022 Recap

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

May 28-29: Sydney Kruszka’s Guest Post: Why We Should All Read Maus: I was beyond excited to share another Guest Post from Robin Field’s students at King’s College, this one on Maus!

May 30: Remembering Memorial Day: Starting my annual Memorial Day series with a post on how and why we should remember the holiday’s multiple layers.

May 31: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass: A Decoration Day series kicks off with Douglass’ vital 1871 speech.

June 1: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor: The series continues with the 1876 speech that signaled two significant shifts in American attitudes.

June 2: Decoration Day Histories: “Rodman the Keeper”: The short story which reminds us of a community for whom the holiday’s meanings didn’t change, as the series rolls on.

June 3: Decoration Day Histories: So What?: The series concludes with three ways to argue for better remembering Decoration Day alongside Memorial Day.

June 4-5: A Memorial Day Tribute: A special weekend post on the holiday’s profound AmericanStudies meanings.

June 6: Judy Garland Studying: The Wizard of Oz: A series for Garland’s 100th birthday kicks off with two ways to analyze Garland’s most iconic performance.

June 7: Judy Garland Studying: Meet Me in St. Louis: The series continues with three ways to analyze Garland’s next blockbuster after Wizard.

June 8: Judy Garland Studying: A Star is Born: Two ways Garland’s profound talents are revealed by her version of a much-remade classic, as the series sings on.

June 9: Judy Garland Studying: Judgment at Nuremberg: A few thoughts on Garland’s most powerful scene in the acclaimed historical film.

June 10: Judy Garland Studying: The Judy Garland Show: The series concludes with power moves behind the scenes and even more powerful presences on the screen.

June 11-12: LGBTQ Icons: A special weekend post on AmericanStudies takeaways from how Garland and four other artists became LGTBQ icons.

June 13: Revisiting Beach Reads: Tony Hillerman: A series revisiting beach reads from my youth kicks off with Hillerman’s Southwestern mysteries in time for the new TV show Dark Winds.

June 14: Revisiting Beach Reads: Tom Clancy: The series continues with learning from authors and books who (eventually) make us cringe.

June 15: Revisiting Beach Reads: Tad Williams: Why you should read an epic four-volume sci fi series on the beach this summer, as the series reads on.

June 16: Revisiting Beach Reads: Tana French: Two ways to AmericanStudy the amazing Irish mystery novelist.

June 17: Revisiting Beach Reads: Foer and Krauss: The series concludes with why you should read two Holocaust novels on the beach this summer.

June 18-19: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads: One of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year didn’t disappoint!

June 20: Las Vegas Studying: Bugsy Siegel: A series for the 75th of Siegel’s murder kicks off with how his earlier cities contributed to his Las Vegas.

June 21: Las Vegas Studying: The Godfather and Casino: The series continues with important differences in how the two iconic gangster films portray the city.

June 22: Las Vegas Studying: Sin City: A necessary challenge to our Puritanical roots and how it can go too far, as the series rolls (the dice) on.

June 23: Las Vegas Studying: Vegas Films: What we can learn about the city from a handful of feature films.

June 24: Las Vegas Studying: Andre Agassi: The series concludes with the tennis great who has embodied both sides of the city.

June 25-26: Las Vegas Studying: Vegas in Song: A special weekend post on five great tunes to win (or, yes, lose) it all to.

June 27: Summer Camp Contexts: Camp Virginia: With my sons at sleepover camp, my annual CampStudying series kicks off with the camp without which there’d be no AmericanStudier.

June 28: Summer Camp Contexts: Hello Muddah: The series continues with the very American afterlife of a classic camp song.

June 29: Summer Camp Contexts: Jewish Summer Camps: Ethnicity, community, and the preservation and revision of tradition, as the series camps on.

June 30: Summer Camp Contexts: Playing Indian: The camp tradition that exemplifies a troubling American trend, and how to challenge it.

July 1: Summer Camp Contexts: My Camp Anti-Racists: Couldn’t conclude the series without sharing the story of my sons’ antiracism at last year’s sleepover camp.

July 4th 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, July 1, 2022

July 1, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: My Camp Anti-Racists

[This week my sons return to their favorite sleepaway camp, this time with my older son as a Counselor-in-Training! As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying.]

I couldn’t share a Summer CampStudying series without highlighting the incredibly fraught moment my sons experienced at camp last summer—and the even more impressive way that they responded to it. I wrote about both in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column not long after it happened, and will ask you to check out that column in lieu of a new post here today. Thanks, and enjoy!

June Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 30, 2022

June 30, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Playing Indian

[This summer my sons return (after a frustrating Covid hiatus last year) to their favorite sleepaway camp. As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying! Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the summer camp experiences, stories, and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers.]

On the camp tradition that embodies a troubling American trend, and what we can do about it.

I’ve tried from time to time, mostly in the posts collected under the category “Scholarly Reviews,” to cite works of AmericanStudies scholarship that have been particularly significant and inspiring to me. But it’s fair to say that I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll keep trying to find ways to highlight other such works as the blog moves forward into its second (!) decade. One such work is Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998), a book which moves from the Boston Tea Party and Tammany Hall to late 20th century hobbyists and New Age believers (among many other subjects) to trace the enduring American fascination with dressing up as and performing exaggerated “Indian” identities in order to construct and engage with individual, communal, and national identity. In one of his later chapters, Deloria considers Cold War-era practices of “playing Indian” through which children’s social experiences and burgeoning American identities were often delineated—and right alongside the Boy Scouts and “cowboys and Indians” play, Deloria locates and analyzes summer camps.

In the example cited in that last hyperlink, Missouri’s Camp Lake of the Woods held an annual “Indian powwow” for its campers—the tradition dates back at least to the 1940s, and apparently continued well into the late 20th century. (I’m assuming it no longer occurs, although I haven’t found evidence one way or another.) By all accounts, including Deloria’s research and analysis, such summer camp uses of “Indian” images and performances were widespread, if not even ubiquitous, as camps rose to their height of national prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Even if we leave aside the long and troubling history that Deloria traces and in which these particular performances are unquestionably located, the individual choice remains, to my mind, equally troubling: this is childhood fun created out of the use of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, community-building through blatant “othering” of fellow Americans, and a particularly oppressed and vulnerable community at that; to paraphrase what I said in my post on the racist “Red Man” scene in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), I can’t imagine these camps asking their campers to “play” any other ethnic or racial group. The performances were obviously not intended to be hurtful, but it’s difficult, especially in light of Deloria’s contextualizing, to read them in any other way.

So what, you might ask? Well for one thing, we could far better remember these histories—both the specific histories of playing Indian in summer camps, and the broader arc of playing Indian as a foundational element in the construction of American identity and community across the centuries; Deloria’s book would help us better remember on both levels. For another thing, it would be worth considering what it means that so many American children experienced and took part in these performances, how that might impact their perspectives on not only Native Americans, but ethnic and cultural “others” more generally. And for a third thing, it would also be worth examining our contemporary summer camps and other childhood communities—certainly the most overt such racism has been almost entirely eliminated from those space; but what stereotypes and images, performances and “others,” remain? Summer camps are fun and games, but they’re also as constitutive of identities as any influential places and material cultures can be—as Deloria reminds us, play is also dead serious, and demands our attention and anaylsis.

Last camp context tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?