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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November 30, 2010: Far From Trifling

Despite the way us English profs like to structure survey classes—and I’m as guilty of this one as anybody—literary history doesn’t tend to break up into neat or orderly time periods and movements. Other than the very explicitly self-identifying and –defined movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, for the most part these categories and trends comprise instead precisely our scholarly efforts to look back at complex and overlapping collections of writers and texts and styles and focal points and assemble them into more easily digested (and, yes, taught) bits. Doesn’t mean that the bits aren’t without value or can’t help us see our literary and cultural history, just that they can be pretty reductive or limiting, especially in how we see a particular author or text. But having said that, sometimes the moments when literature shifts from one style or movement or another are more overt and striking; and as I get toward the close of my first semester teaching American Drama, I’ve come to realize that the early 20th century, and even more exactly the founding of the Provincetown Players in the mid-1910s, represents exactly such a transitional moment.
Up through the end of the 19th century, American drama had been dominated by the melodramatic—the over-the-top villains, the doomed love stories, the comic relief characters, the big musical cues, the swordfights on stage, etc. European drama had been evolving into something much more socially realistic for some time, spearheaded by folks like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, but as far as I can tell, that trend hadn’t reached our shores by the turn of the century. But in the summer of 1915, a group of young playwrights and performers vacationing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, led by a married couple, George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell—all of whom having experienced rejection and frustration in the mainstream theatrical world of the era—began sharing their works with each other; the following year Cook and Glaspell made the impromptu gathering into an official theatrical community, the Provincetown Players/Playhouse. The Players quickly became best known—and are still most significant in American literary and cultural history—for introducing the works of Eugene O’Neill, who is in many ways the poster child for the shift to a new social and psychological realism in American drama. But while his first plays debuted with them in the late 1910s, and his first hit (The Emperor Jones) in 1920, it is a one-act play of Glaspell’s from 1916 that truly to my mind signals the literary sea-change represented by Provincetown.
That play, Trifles, focuses on an event as melodramatic as they get: the murder of a rural farmer, found strangled with a noose in bed next to his sleeping wife; the wife denies any knowledge of the crime but is of course the principal suspect in her husband’s death. That Glaspell based this event on an actual crime that she had investigated and written about during a stint as a journalist in Iowa makes the play’s focus real but not necessarily realistic; she certainly could have created a melodramatic text from this starting point. But while the play does feature the murder mystery at its core, it does so in a profoundly realistic and powerful way: it is set solely in the farmhouse’s kitchen, and so the three male characters who are ostensibly investigating the crime (two local law enforcement representatives and the neighbor who found the body) are looking elsewhere and fruitlessly for most of the play; the two female characters, the wives of the sheriff and of the neighbor, stay in the kitchen and, through their informal investigations there as well as their conversations and developing understandings, unravel the details of the crime (and a great deal else). When the male neighbor says early in the play that “women are used to worrying over trifles,” he is thus not only entirely wrong about whose focus and knowledge are ultimately validated, but also ironically helping Glaspell communicate a central thesis of her new, realistic dramatic style: that it is in the trifles, the small details of (for example) a farmhouse’s kitchen, that life’s most central questions and identities and relationships can unfold and be captured.
As with all of the works of literature on which I’ll focus in this space, I think the value of Glaspell’s play extends well beyond just scholarly conversations or even classrooms. For one thing, it’s an engaging and often engrossing character study and murder mystery, another example (to echo yesterday’s post on Public Enemy) of how political art can also be appealing and popular (and in multiple iterations, as Glaspell turned it into a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” that is great in its own right). But it’s also a really striking reflection of a moment when American drama was changing, when a group of American artists recognized the significance of the far from trifling realities and lives and communities that had often been excluded from our literature, and began to create enduring works focused on them. More tomorrow, on the college professor whose bluff saved the United States.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The full text of Glaspell’s short play:
2)      Pretty thorough history of the Provincetown Playhouse:

Monday, November 29, 2010

November 29, 2010: Rapped Attention

I don’t pretend to be an expert on rap music—not that I would claim to be an expert on most of the topics about which I write here (John Sayles, maybe, but not most of them), but I am particularly less-well-informed when it comes to the multi-decade history and evolution of rap. When someone who grew up on the genre, like (one of my favorite bloggers) Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic’s website, writes about it, it quickly becomes clear to me how many of the artists who were influential to him are barely (if at all) familiar to me, and how uniquely unqualified I thus would be to judge which artists or records have been the most significant in rap history. But on the other hand, one of the genres with which I’m most familiar is American political and protest music—the more my Springsteen tastes started to include his most explicitly political albums and songs (like most of The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album that I hated on first listen and have come to love), the more I both delved back into artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Tom Waits and came to appreciate contemporary ones like Rage Against the Machine and Ani DiFranco. And so I feel entirely qualified to assert that Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) is one of the greatest political and protest albums in American history.
Although I was too young to recognize it at the time, 1988 seems to have been the single most important year in rap’s transition from an underground, fully counter-culture genre to a dominant force in popular music—the Beastie Boys had started the shift a year or two earlier, but ’88 saw the release of both Public Enemy’s album (their second, but the first had been Def Jam Records’ worst-selling album of all time, so it was this second that really broke them) and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. While there are certainly points of connection and overlap between the two albums, their central voices and styles are hugely distinct, and can perhaps be captured in their two best-selling singles (which I use side by side in my Intro to American Studies course on the 1980s): N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” an intentionally extreme, vulgar and violent response to police brutality and profiling; and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” a sophisticated and media-savvy response to critics’ and mainstream musical outlets’ stereotyping of the group. I think there is most definitely a place and role for both songs in our understanding of (among other things) South Central Los Angeles, life for young African American men, and race in the 1980s, but it is unquestionably easier to fixate on the extremes in N.W.A. and thus miss the serious and social questions behind them; whereas Public Enemy’s song, like their entire album, forces us to engage seriously and meaningfully with its central themes and perspectives.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. The real genius of Nation of Millions, what puts it in the same conversation with works like “This Land is Your Land,” “The Hurricane,” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” is that it weds tremendous popular appeal with cutting political critiques and radical messages; it’s got a beat and you can dance to it, but while you’re doing so your perspective and understanding of American identities and communities, present and past, are being significantly impacted and (at least for someone not a product of inner-city Los Angeles; or, to put it more exactly, at least for me) significantly altered. Political protest music doesn’t have to feel pedantic (I’m looking at you, Neil Young’s “Southern Man”) or explicitly divisive (ditto, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”); it can instead unite its listeners across any and all categories and identities, bringing audiences together and to their feet and then hitting them in their collective consciousness. In the final verse of “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Chuck D raps that he and the group will “rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar/Teach the bourgeoisie, and rock the boulevard,” and that’s exactly the balance that the whole album achieves.
If working with college students day in and day out for the last decade has taught me anything, it’s how centrally important music is to their lives and identities and perspectives; pop culture in general has a big influence, of course, but while I have some students for whom that means movies and some for whom it’s TV, some who are all about various websites and some who read a ton of science fiction (to cite only four of the many pursuits and obsessions I encounter), I would say that music is hugely significant for pretty much every one of them. And that makes it especially important than American Studies scholarship pay particular attention to an album like Nation of Millions, a best-selling work of popular music that managed to engage, with sophistication and humor and intelligence, with some of our nation’s most pressing and complex questions. More tomorrow, on a mysterious and moving one-act play from the co-founder of America’s most influential group of playwrights and performers.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      A decent YouTube version of “Don’t Believe the Hype”:
2)      And in the interest of being fair and balanced, the same for “Fuck Tha Police”:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28, 2010: The Heart Matters

As earlier entries in this blog have no doubt made abundantly clear, one of my bigger pet peeves in the dominant narratives of American history is the notion that multi-national and –ethnic immigration has been a relatively recent phenomenon, or at least that it has been most pronounced in the last few decades. It’s true that the 1965 Immigration Act, the first immigration law that opened up rather than closed down immigration for various groups and nationalities, led directly to certain significant waves, especially those from war-torn Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. And it is also true that certain ethnic groups represented particularly sizeable percentages of the immigrants in the last decades of the 20th century: Asian Americans, again, and also Hispanic and West Indian immigrants. None of those facts are insignificant, and our understanding of America in the 1970s and 80s (for example) needs to include them in a prominent place. But my issue is with the very different notion that America prior to 1965 didn’t include immigrants from these nations (an idea advanced in its most overt form, for example, by Pat Buchanan in an editorial after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, which he blamed on the shooter’s status as the son of South Korean immigrants; another piece I’m most definitely not going to link).
Multicultural historian Ronald Takaki notes this belief in the introduction to his magisterial A Different Mirror, recounting a conversation when a cab-driver asks him how long he has been in the US, and he has to reply that his family has been here for over 100 years. While the most obvious and widespread problem with this belief is that it makes it much easier to define members of these groups as less American than others, I would argue that another very significant downside is that it enables us to more easily forget or ignore the stories of earlier such immigrants; that group would include a couple people about whom I’ve already written in this space, Yung Wing and Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton, as well as two of the most interesting and unique writers of the first half of the 20th century: Sui Sin Far, about whom I’m sure I’ll blog here at some point; and my focus for today, the Filipino-American novelist, poet, and labor activist Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan came to the United States in 1930 at the age of 17 (or so, his birthdate is a bit fuzzy), and only lived another 26 years, but in that time he worked literally hundreds of different jobs up and down the West Coast, agitated on behalf of migrant and impoverished laborers and citizens during and after the Depression, published various poems and short stories (and wrote many others that remained unpublished upon his far too early death), and wrote the autobiographical, complex, and deeply moving novel, America is in the Heart (1946).
For the most part the book—which is certainly very autobiographical but apparently includes many fictionalized characters, hence my designation of it as a novel (in the vein of something like On the Road or The Bell-Jar)—paints an incredibly bleak picture of its multiple, interconnected worlds: of migrant laborers; of the lower and working classes in the Depression; and of Filipino-American immigrants. In the first two focal points, and especially in its tone, which mixes bleak psychological realism with strident social criticism, Bulosan’s book certainly echoes (or at least parallels, since it is difficult to know if Bulosan had read the earlier work) and importantly complements The Grapes of Wrath. But despite that tone, its ultimate trajectory is surprisingly and powerfully hopeful—that’s true partly because of the opening chapters, which are set in Bulosan’s native Philippines and make it much more difficult to see the book’s America as an entirely bleak place; but mostly because of the evocative concluding chapter, where Bulosan develops at length his title’s argument for the continuing and defining existence of a more ideal America, in the very hearts of all those seemingly least advantaged Americans on whom his book has focused. The idea might sound clichéd, but all I can say—and the echo of Reading Rainbow is conscious—is “Read the book”; it works, and works beautifully.
I wrote a few days ago, in concluding the Pequot/Sedgwick post, about American novels of hard-won hope, texts that paint realistic pictures of some of our nation’s darkest histories but come to almost utopian yet very fully earned optimistic conclusions. Bulosan’s definitely fits that bill on both counts; as, again, does Steinbeck’s, and pairing the two thus both captures the depths of the Depression and yet indicates how much hope could survive in the heart of that dark period. But Bulosan’s book is also a wonderful reminder that even in the years between the Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1965 Immigration Act, when immigration from Asian nations was at its most difficult and seemingly scarce, Asian-American immigrants remained a key part of our nation’s vital and evolving communities and identities. More tomorrow, on the 1988 rap album that belongs alongside Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen in the pantheon of popular yet deeply political American protest music.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The opening pages of America is in the Heart, on the “Look inside” feature:
2)      Info on a Carlos Bulosan exhibit in Seattle, including a couple interesting excerpts from his writings:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 27, 2010: For Which It Stands?

My younger son’s preschool class—made up of kids between 3 and 4 years old, not surprisingly—is learning to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I don’t have a particular problem with that, for a couple of reasons: it’s a pretty diverse group of kids, and I like that they can all learn from a very young age that America ideally means all of them, equally, no questions asked; and it’s just so darn cute to hear him recite his version of it. (That combination of ideal and cute images of American children was at the heart of my choice of cover image for my upcoming book, which features a mixed-race collection of young American girls either pledging allegiance or singing the national anthem at a World War II-era school for refugee and orphans kids in San Francisco.) So the practice, again, not an issue. But having heard the main classroom teacher articulate the theory while telling a fellow parent about her reasoning behind having them recite it—she said, and this is paraphrase but it’s close, “It’s just one of those founding American things, you know? So I feel like they should know it as soon as possible”—helped confirm for me something that I’ve long suspected, which is that our communal knowledge of the Pledge is pretty significantly inaccurate on two key fronts.
For one thing, the Pledge’s historical origin is both more recent and much more radical than we probably know. It was created not in the Founding era, but more than a century later, in 1892; the still fresh sectional division of the Civil War, and its resulting destructions and continuing bitterness, meant that the word “indivisible” was not at all a given, and instead very much a point of emphasis for the Pledge’s creator. And moreover that creator, Francis Bellamy, was thinking not only of those divisions, but also and even more strikingly of the Christian Socialism to which both he and his cousin Edward Bellamy (author of the socialist utopian novel Looking Backward) subscribed: Frances Bellamy later admitted that he originally planned to include “equality” along with “liberty and justice for all,” or even to use instead the French Revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but recognized that in the late 19th century such beliefs were still unfortunately “too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization.” Yet even the emphasis on “liberty and justice for all” was, in the same decade in which the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of Jim Crow segregation and the same year in which the number of lynchings of African Americans reached an all-time high, was like “indivisible” far from a given; and Bellamy’s reaffirmation of those core ideals, particularly as located in the Pledge’s culminating phrase, was and remains a significant and inspiring statement.
As valuable and influential as it would be for those origins to be part of our public consciousness of the Pledge, however, it would be even more significant for us to recognize its most overt evolution, and the contexts behind it. For the first sixty-two years of its existence, the Pledge included no reference to religion; it was only in 1954, after a campaign by the Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus, that Congress added the words “under god.” It should, I believe, be impossible not to recognize the very specific contexts for that addition, in an era of still strong McCarthyism (with its tendency to conflate atheism with anti-Americanism) and likewise a period in which opposition to the “godless Communism” of the Soviet Union was becoming entrenched in every aspect of American government and society. Less absolute but still worth our awareness is the reaction of the Bellamy family to this addition—Frances had been dead for over twenty years, but his granddaughter argued vehemently that he would have been opposed to the change, noting that he had been forced out of his church in 1891 due to his socialist perspective and had toward the end of his life voluntarily left a church in Florida because of its endorsement of racial discrimination. While we can never know for sure what Bellamy would have thought, we can certainly acknowledge the very contemporary and politicized motivations behind this addition; doing so, to my mind, would—especially if coupled with an understanding of Bellamy and the Pledge’s origins—make it much more difficult to see critiques of “under god,” or of the Pledge itself, as un- or anti-American.
I am not, to be clear, arguing that we should discard the Pledge, or even necessarily alter its current version. Instead, as I hope is always the case in this space, I am arguing first that we can’t ever assume that our versions of core national texts and stories are necessarily accurate or complete, and that we have to try to tell the fuller, more complex, perhaps more dark but usually also more rich and meaningful, stories and histories behind them. Second, and even more significantly, I’d argue that when we do, it opens our history and identity up, truly democratizes them, makes clear how much they have evolved and how much they continue to do so, and thus how much of a role we have to play in shaping and carrying them forward. More tomorrow, on the autobiographical novel of a Filipino-American immigrant’s experiences of the worst and best versions of Depression-era America.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      A pretty good short history of the Pledge, by the author of the best scholarly work on the subject:
2)      The full text of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward:

Friday, November 26, 2010

November 26, 2010: Child’s Plan

There are a couple of particularly good reasons why we should really better remember Lydia Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-a) Child better than we do (and I know I’ve said that about most everybody and everything on which I’ve focused here, but it’s even more true of Child): she produced influential and impressive work in virtually every literary genre and for virtually every major social and political movement over a more than fifty-year span (roughly 1820 to 1880), leading one of her contemporaries to call her “the first woman in the Republic”; and she is the subject of one of the most thorough and deeply researched and successful historical and cultural biographies ever written about an American figure, Carolyn Karcher’s (pronounced Car-share) appropriately named The First Woman in the Republic (in the interests of full disclosure, Karcher was one of my two grad school mentors, but the book would be what I said even if I had never met her). And yet, as Karcher acknowledges in the opening pages of her book, if Child is remembered at all by most Americans, it’s entirely unknowingly: she wrote the Thanksgiving-inspired poem “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Better than nothing, I suppose, but far from what this truly unique and monumental American voice deserves.
Ironically, one of the most inspiring aspects of Child’s career and life is also, perhaps, part of the reason why she isn’t better remembered, or more exactly why she didn’t achieve even in her lifetime the level of national fame and prominence as did (for example) Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first years of her publishing career had been hugely successful, especially given her youth: she published the Puritan and Native American focused historical novel Hobomok (1824), a text worth putting in the conversation with Sedgwick and Cooper’s novels from a couple years later, at the age of 22; two years later she created and began publishing the Juvenile Miscellany, America’s first monthly periodical for children. At 26 she was already a leading figure in two entirely different literary and publishing worlds, poised for the kind of superstardom that her Early Republic contemporaries Washington Irving and Cooper were enjoying. But in the early 1830s she became an ardent abolitionist, and in 1833 published what is considered the first book-length abolitionist work in America, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. The text, with its argument for immediate emancipation of all slaves, would likely—like Child’s ongoing arguments that women should be part of the main streams of abolitionist work, not separated into female-only organizations—have made her an instantly more divisive and less popular national figure, and Child was far too intelligent a writer and publisher not to know what she was risking.
 But her beliefs and passion were far too strong not to publish. And at the heart of the book’s concluding and most significant chapter, moreover, is one of the most radical ideas about race relations I have ever encountered, at least taking into account the moment and era in which it was published (and I don’t even know if those qualifications are needed). Child argues there that miscegenation laws, which made racial intermarriage illegal, were among the most pernicious and unjust of our nation’s laws; she admits that she is “perfectly aware of the gross ridicule to which [she] may subject [herself] by alluding to this particular,” and since such laws were on the books of many states (including my native Virginia) until the late 1960s, it is a serious understatement to say that she was indeed far ahead of her time. And in one of her later works, the Reconstruction-era novel A Romance of the Republic (1867), Child took those ideas one giant step further, arguing, more implicitly but even more strikingly, that intermarriage and miscegenation themselves might be the best way to eliminate the racial divisions and prejudice that had so defined American society throughout her lifetime (and not only in the South by any means, of course). Given the fears of social and sexual equality that had already begun to spring up in this post-abolition era, Child’s 1867 argument was even more radical in its context as well as its specifics, making clear that thirty-five years had in no way lessened her willingness to speak her mind.
As I’ve written about a couple of times in this space, my own relationship to the issue of intermarriage in the late 20th and early 21st century is undeniable: born in Virginia ten years after the Supreme Court case (Loving v. Virginia) that finally knocked down the state’s miscegenation law; in an intermarriage of my own; and raising two mixed-race boys in an era when our president shares that identity and yet our census (as of the 2010 version) has no explicit option for mixed-race (a step back from the 2000 census that I have never seen explained). But it doesn’t take that kind of personal stake to see the incredible boldness, and more importantly the inspiring openmindedness, of Child’s plan. Maybe we should recite those words every Thanksgiving instead. More tomorrow, on the complex, relatively recent, and very much evolving identity of what is too often treated as one of the founding American texts.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The text of about half of Child’s Appeal:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

November 25, 2010: A Thanksgiving Turkey

Nothing would make me more thankful—okay, that’s not true, but in this particular space, very few things would make more thankful—than if I never had to engage in my AmericanStudies thoughts with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk; if, that is, this could be a space where the worst of our contemporary political culture, and even more exactly the most egregiously horrific voices therein, could be genuinely and correctly absent from our national narratives and conversations. But they can’t, at least not entirely, and there’s a very simple and significant reason why: such voices have become more and more centrally concerned with putting forth their own, almost always profoundly inaccurate and destructive, visions of our national history and identity; and so part of the work of a public scholar in American Studies has to be engaging with and correcting such visions. Beck is probably the most consistent offender in this regard—just google “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” if you doubt it; I’ll be damned if I’ll waste one of my two links on these folks—but today, by request, I’m writing instead about El Rushbo (as he calls himself at the end of the story I’ll reference, and to which I also won’t link), and his yearly recounting of “The REAL Story of Thanksgiving” on his radio program.
As Limbaugh frames it, quoting—he claims—directly from William Bradford (and I know this is my second Bradford-related post in less than a week, but it is Thanksgiving week at least), the first Thanksgiving was not at all about the Pilgrims’ celebrating their survival of the first year in the New World, nor about the related communal gathering with some of the local Native Americans who had so influenced that survival (not that Rush mentions that latter point at all, shockingly). Instead, in this version, the first Thanksgiving represented the culmination of the Pilgrims’ transition from a socialist vision of land and community to a capitalist one, and thus was a celebration of the first (of many, Rush dose not hesitate to add) rejection of an American experiment with socialism. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that he is entirely wrong on the specifics: the first Thanksgiving, such as it was (and it is never given that name in Bradford’s text; the Pilgrims did call a separate event in the summer of 1623 by the name, but that day was devoted entirely to prayer and has nothing to do with any subsequent versions of Thanksgiving), was a multi-day autumn festival with which the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the fall of 1621, and which did include a few of the local Native Americans and most certainly did implicitly recognize that Plymouth Plantation had survived its first and most brutal winter and was beginning to prosper.
Limbaugh is not wrong that the plantation eventually transitioned from a communal to an individual policy of landholding, a shift that took place about two years later and did indicate the continuing evolution of the Pilgrims’ perspectives on their community and mission and identity (topics that require and have received extended and complex analytical work). But Limbaugh’s error in connecting this transition to “Thanksgiving” is to my mind deeply significant for at least three reasons. First, it illustrates that he has no actual interest in the specifics or details of the text he is allegedly citing and even quoting, that instead his engagement with this key American text is both too poor to be accepted in a first-year college writing course and likely to produce many thousands of Americans with a similarly false understanding. Second, it is a great piece of evidence for how much a political approach to analyses of and narratives about our past is on its face doomed to oversimplify and falsify, to find what the political narratives need rather than the historical record contains. And third, and most relevantly to this blog, it demonstrates how much such mythical versions of our history tend to connect to our most overarching cultural markers—such as Thanksgiving; see also the controversies over the Pledge of Allegiance, the “War on Christmas,” the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and so on—and thus seek to define our most shared national events and elements through their particular, political, and propagandistic lens.
The answer, for me, is not to respond with propaganda on or for the other side, tempting as that might be; such a move is probably unwise or at least irresponsible even in the political arena, but is critically off-base when it comes to the work and narratives that comprise American Studies and history and identity. Instead, the way to push back against Limbaugh and Beck’s narratives of our history is first and foremost to point to the history itself, to highlight the texts and voices and stories that constitute it, and ask us to engage with them on their own terms, as fully and broadly as we can, and see what vision of America is the result. I’m pretty confident it won’t be Rush’s. More tomorrow, on the unbelievably radical and inspiring argument about race advanced by a 19th-century author whose most overt cultural presence is a Thanksgiving song.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The full text of Bradford’s book; the harvest festival is very briefly described on p.162, and the shift in ownership on p.216:
2)      Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

November 24, 2010: A Thankless Gig (That Really Shouldn’t Be)

If you wanted to feel very depressed, you could spend some time trying to decide which at-risk American population is more elided in our national narratives and perspectives about our current identity and community: certainly Native Americans, on whom I’ve already focused a good deal in this space and will continue to do so, have a good case (although probably it was better before casinos forced us to admit that they still exist); the homeless and those living at the very bottom of the economic ladder are definitely in the conversation too. But I think a very strong argument could be made that the population we most consistently forget to include in our sense of ourselves, until and unless there’s some sort of scandal that makes us think about them but solely in negative terms (see Horton, Willie), is the more than 2.3 million Americans—or more than 1 in 100, and that statistic is from 2008 so it’s likely higher today—who are in prison. (Making us, it’s important to add, the worldwide leader in both the overall number of citizens and the percentage of the population behind bars.) It’s ironic but, I believe, entirely accurate to note that much more press and attention was paid to (for example) Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan’s couple of weeks in jail than is paid to the millions of their fellow Americans who are spending significant portions of their lives in that world.
There are all sorts of issues associated with that world and this community, as well as an equally striking number of complicating factors and influences that have helped create and sustain it, and it would be irresponsible of me to pretend to know nearly enough about any of them to focus on them in a piece here (I’m quite sure that many readers will know a good deal more and should, as always, chime in). And in any case, my focus today, in the first of three Thanksgiving-inspired posts, is instead on an incredibly impressive kind of academic and American (in the best sense) work being done in this community by a colleague of mine, Ian Williams. Ian is, in his own ways, a model of the type of interdisciplinary scholar and teacher and person that I consistently aspire to be: he teaches and produces scholarship about American literature and identity and culture, as do I, but he’s also a published and on-the-rise poet and author of fiction, has taught dance and performance, and has entirely revamped our department’s literary magazine and website, to cite only a few of his broad and meaningful pursuits and accomplishments. But the most impressive of his efforts, to my mind, is also perhaps the least overtly visible: he has over the last couple years begun to go into local prisons and develop reading and writing conversations and courses with inmates, dialogues that have continued well beyond his individual visits and that have, without question, added immeasurably to the world and possibilities of those imprisoned Americans.
I can’t claim to speak for Ian’s experiences, and he has written a bit recently about them on his own blog, which I’ll link below. And I’m quite sure that he would dispute my title’s principal phrase, the idea that this gig is a thankless one; whether it garners any visibility or attention is not, that is, at all connected to whether it’s appreciated or makes a difference, and the thanks, similarly, come not from outside perspectives but from those impacted directly by the work. I agree with all of those thoughts (that I’ve imagined into Ian’s perspective!), but would also argue that the absence of visibility is itself a further sign of how much we don’t include this world and community nearly enough in our national narratives and consciousness. Every few years (at least) sees a new movie about an inspiring teacher doing important work with public school students in the inner city; I can’t agree strongly enough that such individuals are sources of inspiration, and I don’t think we could make enough movies celebrating teachers in any case (duh, I suppose). But the communities whom Ian is inspiring are even more desperately in need of that influence—and while their inhabitants can’t necessarily (or at least often can’t) get to the happy endings and brighter futures that are often featured in the captions at the end of those movies, that doesn’t mean that we should celebrate any less fully the teachers and Americans who are doing what they can to connect with and impact their worlds and lives.
I’ll stop there, since I can already imagine Ian’s demurrals from much of what I’ve written. At the end of the day, again, he isn’t doing this work so it’ll get written up, here or in much more prominent publications or spaces. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be—nor that American Studies shouldn’t include and study the world of our imprisoned fellow Americans much more fully than it often does. More tomorrow, on the historical meaning of Thanksgiving and the blowhard who has decided to create a fictional version of it.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Ian’s website; the Blog link features a recent post on this work:
2)      A Project through which free books can be donated to American prisoners:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

November 23, 2010: Sayles Pitch

Even for those readers of this blog who know me only through the things I’ve written here, the two qualities that combine to produce my favorite filmmaker are probably not going to come as a huge surprise: he’s deeply novelistic, tending to create multi-character and –thread narratives; and he’s centrally concerned with imagining American settings in which both multiple communities and the past and present intersect and interweave in rich and impossible to simplify ways. Not every John Sayles film fits those descriptions perfectly: he can create more intimate portraits of a couple characters, as in Leanna and Passion Fish; even his multi-character and –story films can focus very specifically on the unique qualities of their particular setting (like Limbo and Sunshine State) and/or historical moment (such as Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Honeydripper); and some of those similarly delve more into these issues in other countries and cultures (the Ireland of The Secret of Roan Inish, the Mexico of Men With Guns). But for this AmericanStudier, both personally and in my role as curator—which makes it sound a bit too museum-like, so let’s go with ringleader—of this here blog, Sayles’ two best films are a pair of complementary 1990s portraits of profoundly American, multi-generational and -layered communities: City of Hope (1991) and Lone Star (1996).
I’m not going to say too much about either film, both because there’s way too much in each to try to summarize in a paragraph or two and because I’d much rather you check them out and then add your thoughts about them to, say, the comments on this post! (Or if you have already seen ‘em, feel free to do so now.) But it’s worth noting some interesting overlaps, despite hugely distinct worlds and styles and even genres: City focuses on an unidentified New Jersey urban center, connects to genres such as the police story and exposés of political corruption, and tells the stories most centrally (among about twenty-seven plot threads) of an Italian-American father and son (the former a builder, the latter failing as a construction worker and trying to figure out who and what he is), the single mother with whom the son falls in love, and a passionate but frustrated young African-American city councilman; Star focuses on a fictional city on the Texas-Mexico border, connects to genres such as the western and detective mysteries, and tells the stories most centrally (ditto) of a father and son (the former a prior sheriff and the latter the current one, struggling with his memories of his dad and his sense of his own life), the Mexican-American single mother  with whom the son rekindles an old relationship, and a disciplined but conflicted young African-American military officer. Both are full of funny and romantic and exciting moments, both move across their full landscapes (literal and story-wise) with ease, and both are structured perfectly, building to amazingly interconnected (if definitely different in tone) conclusions.
But what really elevates the two films, and the reason why I’m writing about them here (since I did say that this wasn’t going to become just celebrations of Willow, metaphorically speaking), is an incredibly complicated three-part process at the heart of both: taking as their settings the two most controversial and volatile and in-crisis settings in late 20th century America, a decaying Eastern city and the US-Mexico border; refusing to romanticize or over-simplify or ignore the most messy and difficult and divisive and painful and potentially destructive elements of those worlds, and what they force us to recognize and engage with in our nation and culture more broadly; and yet ultimately portraying, especially in cross-community and cross-cultural and cross-racial conversations and relationships, not only the possibilities for hope and optimism and progress in these places, but how much those possibilities are in fact linked directly to a fuller narration of the histories and identities that have always comprised them, to telling the stories of the American lives and communities at their core. I wrote in my first full post here about Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, which has my vote as the greatest American novel, and ultimately it’s for undertaking precisely that same three-part process; Chesnutt’s historical centerpiece is all too real, while those in Sayles’ films are representative and emblematic but fictional, but as portraits of divided and endangered and yet crucial American communities, they’re profoundly similar texts.
I had the great fortune of meeting John Sayles at an event after a film festival screening of his first movie (The Return of the Secaucus Seven) in Philadelphia about a decade ago, and of talking to him briefly about history in Lone Star. Mostly I listened as he expounded a bit in his larger than life voice, with its pitch-perfect combination of down to earth Jersey guy and seriously smart scholar of most everything, ending (I had told him I was a grad student) with a smiled “The seminars are free, kid.” His movies aren’t, but they’re also guaranteed to be among the most entertaining and powerful seminars you’ll ever attend. More tomorrow, the first of three Thanksgiving-themed posts; this one will feature the unbelievably important work being done by a colleague of mine with some of America’s most easily ignored citizens.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The first 15 minutes of City of Hope (the whole thing is apparently on You Tube, but Sayles could really use your financial support if you want to check it out; he finances his movies entirely outside of the studio system or any company):
2)      Sayles talking about what he looks for in actors (he has worked many times, including in these two films, with two of the absolute best American actors, Chris Cooper and Joe Morton):

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22, 2010: Very Different Pictures

I’m not a big fan of the “tearing down” style of historical revisionism, the kind that identifies idealized or lionized figures or events and tries to take the air out of those balloons; while I think the revisionist information itself often makes for a pretty significant addition to our narratives (Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings would be Exhibit A for that particular case), the desired end result seems far too often to be just the exact opposite of idealizing or lionizing, and I don’t see that as any more productive. But with that said, I can’t really overstate how much my reading of the section of William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation which narrates the Pequot War changed my opinion of both Bradford himself (the generally very impressive and talented leader, governor, and then chronicler of the Pilgrim settlement at Plimoth) and the Pilgrims overall. Bradford, after all, had come over on the Mayflower and so had experienced the first winter at Plimoth, a time when, as he himself at least semi-acknowledges in his narrative, the entire community would have starved and died were it not for the crucial aid of a couple Native Americans (especially Tisquantum, the one known to the Pilgrims as Squanto). Yet in describing the Pequot War’s most brutal and horrific event, the 1637 massacre of Pequot civilians (virtually all, by English design, women, children, and the elderly) and burning of their settlement at Mystic, Bradford writes, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same; and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”
Like most Native-European encounters and conflicts, especially those in the first couple of centuries after initial contact, there are all sorts of complexities and differing narratives in play with the Pequot War in general and this massacre in particular, and the best recent historians of both have worked hard to provide nuanced accounts of those multiple layers. And of course the entire Pilgrim mission and even worldview depended on a very central belief that God was with them, that Divine Providence was literally directing their actions and experiences, so Bradford’s take here is in that way not at all surprising or unusual. But on the other hand: Bradford’s own prose admits that what happened to the Pequots was fearful and horrible, and yet his sentence structure makes those same dark realities into “a sweet sacrifice” (easy for him to say) and the “wonderful” workings of God. It’s a moment—and I intentionally mean to conflate at least somewhat the moment of the massacre with the moment of writing, because they feel to me all too close here—that, to me, creates a very different picture of the Pilgrim mindset, one in which a sustaining and powerful faith (something that was, again, crucial to their community and the source of a great deal of good) can produce justifications, even celebrations, of the very worst kind of human brutality and destruction.
It took almost two centuries, but the Mystic massacre would eventually be the subject of another, much more inspiring narrative, one that creates (in its own words) “a very different picture” of the event and, through it, of the possibilities of human interaction and connection across the English and Native communities. That narrative comes early in a very long and not entirely related novel, Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1826); the novel’s two Volumes and over 400 pages are dedicated most fully to the life and experiences of its impressive proto-feminist titular heroine, but it does feature the Pequot perspective very prominently in a key supporting character, Magawisca. She is the daughter of a Pequot chief and one of the sole survivors of the massacre, and in the book’s opening chapters she has developed a mutual and potentially romantic relationship with a young Puritan, Everell Fletcher; it is to him that she tells her narrative of the Mystic massacre, in an extended, amazing passage. The passage is amazing not only in its ability to imagine this Pequot young woman’s voice and perspective, at a remove of two centuries and a great deal else, but also in its vision of what such an alternative voice and story can do, what this “very different picture” of the event means for its open-minded, sympathetic, ideal audience. Sedgwick—understandably—can’t quite sustain this level of cross-cultural conversation and connection throughout the novel, but this moment is absolutely a model for it, in response to (not in spite of, but through and then beyond) this darkest historical encounter between the cultures in question.
My third book project, which I’m just beginning to plan and write now—when I’m not, y’know, blogging, among other things—is going to focus on hard-won hope in American novels, moments of almost utopian possibility that occur through (again, not in spite of but very much through) narratives of our darkest histories and realities. The moments I’ll focus on there are going to be concluding ones, and of course hope is more hopeful when it comes at the end; Magawisca’s end in Sedgwick’s novel is explicitly less hopeful than this early encounter might foreshadow. But in its very different picture of both the Pequot War and Native-English relationships, it’s still deeply impressive and well worth our attention. More tomorrow, on one of America’s greatest filmmakers and his pair of complementary 1990s masterpieces about defining American places, histories, and lives.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The text of the relevant section/year of Bradford’s chronicle:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

November 21, 2010: The Doctor is In (Print)

Since the advent of writing as a viable profession, which in America at least began with authors like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper in the early 19th century, most of our nation’s most prominent and successful writers have explicitly focused their careers and efforts on that role. Many certainly have, like Robert Penn Warren, pursued parallel careers as scholars or teachers or public intellectuals of one kind or another, but those careers of course align closely with their literary efforts. Yet interestingly, if coincidentally, two of the most significant poets of the modernist era in America, Williams Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, worked throughout their long literary careers at day jobs that were drastically different from that of professional poet: Williams was a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine in and around Rutherford, New Jersey; Stevens a lawyer for and then the long-time vice president of The Hartford (the insurance company) in Connecticut.
Both men’s distinctive and impressive poetic voices, styles, and overarching interests and themes could definitely and productively be analyzed in conjunction with those careers and identities. But whereas Stevens kept his poetic and professional lives at least overtly separate, Williams brought elements and themes of his medical career much more directly and significantly into his writing. For example: you don’t need to know about Williams’ profession in order to appreciate “Spring and All,” one of Williams’ most intricate and impressive poems (available at the link below); but if you do, the poem’s grounding (literal and figurative) of its painfully hesitant and yet profoundly optimistic images of spring, birth, and identity in the landscape “by the road to the contagious hospital” (its first line) takes on multiple new layers of meaning. After all, a pediatrician doing general practice work in the first half of the 20th century—and doing so largely among the working and lower classes, as Williams did—dealt on a daily basis with tuberculosis, with polio, with any number of contagious illnesses that ravaged the nation’s impoverished and its children with particular strength; again, the poem does not exist simply in that context by any means, but those historical and cultural frames were unquestionably a part of Williams’ professional work, and only add to our understanding of this complex literary work.
More directly connected to Williams’ medical career and more naturalistic in style as a result, but still complex and impressive as works of literature, are his many short stories that feature doctor protagonists (sometimes first-person and explicitly autobiographical, sometimes more fictional characters). Those stories were published over many decades, but scholar Robert Coles collected them in a volume entitled The Doctor Stories (1984), which is where I first encountered them. Compared to the imagist style of much of Williams’ poetry, these stories tend to be, again, very naturalistic, grounded in extremely realistic settings and voices, both of the narrators/protagonists and of the people with whom they engage. Yet what they share with the poems, among other impressive qualities, is an eye for the world that is both critical and yet optimistic, willing to see the blemishes and yet deeply humane in its search for the best in each situation, each setting , each family, each character. Perhaps most emblematic of this dual perspective is “The Girl with the Pimply Face” (1961; most of it at the link below), and especially the first-person narrator’s gradual connection to the hardened and scarred (literally and figuratively) older daughter of the family of immigrants who call him to take care of their newborn baby; the narrator never quite bridges the gaps between his own identity and experiences and hers, as the similarly understated conversation with which the story opens and closes illustrate, and yet at the same time he finds a way to treat her acne and, perhaps, ease her transition into maturity in this new country and home.
The work that Williams did as a doctor doesn’t need any literary treatments to validate its value and significance, of course. And, again, much of his literary work exists and impresses well outside of that specific biographical and historical context. But there’s something especially inspirational—that word again—about the ways in which the two worlds intersected, not only in a life where he managed to sustain both so admirably, but also in his writing. At the very least, it makes Williams a unique and compelling American author, and one whose voice and life have a great deal to offer us. More tomorrow, on a brutal and horrific early American event and the striking moment of literary imagination that recreated it two centuries later.
PS. Two links to start with:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

November 20, 2010: Revisiting a Thorny Problem

When it comes to sheer intellect and talent, Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) takes a backseat to nobody in his candidacy for the Ben Hall of Inspiration. His novel All the King’s Men (1946) might well merit its own blog post someday, partly for the ways in which it forces us to take a longer look at controversial Louisiana governor Huey Long than our main narratives of the man might allow, but mostly for its incredibly rich and complex perspectives on history, historical fiction, and American identity. His Collected Poems (1998, but including poems written as early as the 1920s and as late as the late 1980s) is the kind of book where you can open to any page (and it runs over 800 pages) and be blown away. And throughout his sixty-year career he was also one of America’s most prominent and important literary critics, historians of the South and the Civil War, biographers (his first book, a biography of John Brown, was published when he was twenty-four and is one of the best works on that hugely complex American life), and public intellectuals.
But Penn Warren’s most inspiring text and moment cannot, for better and for worse, be separated from what seems clear to me to be his lowest point (at least of his publications and career). During his time in college and graduate school at Vanderbilt Penn Warren became a part of a group of poets and scholars (including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson) who called themselves the Fugitives; in the late 20s they shifted to a more political and social (and explicitly conservative) focus, renamed themselves the Southern Agrarians, and published a manifesto entitled I’ll Take My Stand (1930). The book’s essays touched on a variety of interconnected and overtly reactionary topics and themes; Penn Warren’s contribution, “The Briar Patch,” was to his discredit a defense of segregation as an imperfect but still the best option through which the South could address the issue of race. Issues of prejudice and racism are difficult to define in absolute ways, without keeping in mind the specific contexts of time period and community and upbringing; and yet Warren was (and, more exactly, was already at the age of twenty-five) one of the most brilliant and well-read American writers, and so I can’t find any way to explain “The Briar Patch” away through such contexts. Du Bois had published The Souls of Black Folk over twenty years before; Penn Warren could and should have known better.
As I have argued about earlier focal figures here, however, the genuine sources of inspiration are not necessarily—or at least not just—found in ideals, but rather in realities, in attempts to grapple with the complexities of history and community and identity, both national and (more difficult still) our own. And to his great credit, Penn Warren revisited, very publicly and honestly, the question of segregation and his own ideas about it, and did so at a time when, if anything, Southern opinion in general had hardened even more fully against integration. His 1956 essay “Divided South Searches Its Soul” appeared in Life magazine, perhaps the most prominent national publication; in it Penn Warren examined his own prior beliefs, fully admitted their inadequacy, took stock of the nascent Civil Rights Movement and found it just as inspiring as we could hope, and became, from then on, a firm supporter of the Movement and of racial integration (culminating in his 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro?, which featured interviews with black leaders like Malcolm X and King). It might seem from afar as if such a reversal, coming two years after Brown v. Board of Education, is a sort of social frontrunning, but I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth—this was the era of Little Rock, of the collective white South (or at the very least its most vocal and powerful leaders and representatives, virtually across the board) entrenching its heels and resisting the Court in every way and beginning the move toward George Wallace’s 1963 embrace of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Penn Warren didn’t reexamine and radically revise his views because it was convenient or appropriate; he did so, it seems clear to me, because it was right.
Nothing in life is a zero-sum game, and so the second essay does not cancel out the first; any assessment of Penn Warren’s legacy must, I believe, acknowledge and include his connection to the Agrarians in general and his work in “The Briar Patch” in particular. Yet one of the surest ways to get a good grade in a class taught by me is to demonstrate improvement, to work hard to strengthen one’s voice and ideas, to grow as a writer and thinker and analyzer and, through them, as a student and person. And In “Divided South,” Penn Warren, in the face of imperatives of his community and region and contexts, models such growth. Color me inspired. More tomorrow, on the crucial day job of another one of our greatest poets and the unique book that came out of it.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The communally written “Statement of Principles” from I’ll Take My Stand:

Friday, November 19, 2010

November 19, 2010: Alternative Treatments of the Depression

To my mind, the most famous artistic works to emerge out of and chronicle the Great Depression are almost entirely focused on its impacts on rural American communities and lives: the Dust Bowl farmers of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and John Ford’s subsequent film version (1940); the sharecropping Southern farmers of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941); the rural African American communities of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and even, if more symbolically and allegorically to be sure, the Kansas that Dorothy seeks to escape and then learns to value in the film version of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Even the most prominent voice in a musical soundtrack to the era, Woody Guthrie, focused much of his attention, as in “the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” of “This Land is Your Land” (1940), on those kinds of rural settings.

I don’t begrudge any of those their spots in our national consciousness, and if anything I think that we could probably think more fully about most of them (potential future blog posts foreshadowing alert). But today I want to add two other late 1930s novels to the conversation, two books that, while entirely different in almost every way (from size, style, and structure to focus and themes), can combine to help us engage more fully with how both the decades leading up to the Depression and the era itself were also deeply felt in and connected to the nation’s urban centers. Focusing on those preceding decades is John Dos Passos’ sprawling historical trilogy U.S.A. (1938; previously published as the individual novels The 42nd Parallel [1930], 1919 [1932], and The Big Money [1936]), which narrates (in over 1300 pages) much of American history between 1900 and the Stock Market crash of 1929 through multiple stylistic lenses, including biographies of significant historical figures, “newsreel” collections of headlines for key events, “camera eye” portrayals of his own evolving identity, and the fictional narratives of a dozen representative characters (all of whose experiences unfold in major cities). Focusing on the Depression itself is Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939), which tells the story (in about 200 pages) of one Italian American bricklayer (modeled on both Donato’s father and his own experiences in the profession from a very young age) whose struggle to provide for his family in 1930s New York ends tragically.
Again, two texts that are different in almost every way, but for both it is the cities—already home by the opening of the 20th century to a huge range of ethnic, national, racial, and work and economic identities and communities—where both the Depression’s causes and its effects can be seen and narrated in all their scope and complexity. For at least the prior half-century numerous astute observers, from sociological reporters like Jacob Riis (in How the Other Half Lives [1890]) to social reformers like Jane Addams (as captured in her Twenty Years at Hull-House [1912]), had focused on America’s cities, and particularly the lives and communities of impoverished immigrant and ethnic city residents, as a key site in which to find, analyze, and attempt to strengthen the nation’s evolving and fragile social fabric. And while Dos Passos’ tone is largely cynical and Donato’s largely elegiac, and both books deeply biting in their portrayals of class and politics in America, their existence themselves serves precisely as an artistic attempt at such strengthening of our social fabric; both books, that is, demand that their audiences confront and attempt to understand the lives and experiences that they represent, and thus to recognize what has happened and is continuing to happen in the nation and most especially (in their lens) in its cities.
I don’t in any way want this to read like a blue-state/red-state, coasts vs. flyover kind of dichotomy—for lots of reasons, but mostly because, in this equation as is most every other one, it is in no way either-or. The Depression hit the Joads and the sharecroppers and the Janeys and Tea Cakes and the Auntie Ems just as hard as it did New Yorkers and Chicagoans and Pittsburghers and Angelinos. We should remember and read and engage with Dos Passos and Donato not in place of those other works, but alongside them, and in so doing, hopefully, come to a fuller and more layered sense of what the Depression was and meant, and how the era’s artists sought to capture and respond to those complex realities. More tomorrow, on the essay in which a titanic American author and scholar confronted and revised his understandings of race in the national past, present, and future.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The complete text of the “Prologue” that Dos Passos added when he compiled the three books into U.S.A.:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

November 18, 2010: Chillingly Good

When I was planning out the first month’s worth of topics for this blog—and yeah, I have a sense of where the first thirty or so entries are headed, and beyond that, well, it’s gonna be a bit more unplanned; I already anticipate including at least one guest-blogger per week to help add some other topics and perspectives to the mix, among other continuing expansions of what’s happening here—I went back and forth on whether to include topics that are particularly, deeply personal, authors or texts or events that have captivated my attention and interest at various moments in my life (and still do) but that aren’t necessarily quite as far-reaching in their significance as others on which I’ll focus in this space. But what I realized, at least as of this point in my thinking, is a combination of two things: everything here is here, first and foremost, because I care deeply about it, so it’s kind of silly to try to parse out which ones I care about for which reasons; and the central reason why I care about these things enough to consider ‘em as topics isn’t just that they make me happy, but that I think they’re meaningful and powerful enough to merit our attention. Which is to say: I love the movie Willow (that’s right, I do), but I’m not going to create an entry on it. But Ross MacDonald’s series of hardboiled PI novels? Yes, yes I will.
At one early point in my plans for a dissertation—and I do mean early; I was the kind of high school nerd who was already thinking of dissertation options—I thought about tracing the 20th century evolution of the hardboiled PI novel, from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane to Ross MacDonald, and up to the female authors (Marcia Muller, Sara Paretksy, Sue Grafton) and protagonists who dominated the 80s and 90s in the genre. The character type is one of the most genuinely and meaningfully American in any artistic medium, and so we can certainly identify core elements of our national identity in each time period across those different authors—Hammett’s cynical and bitter PIs in the late 20s and early 30s shifting to Chandler’s more intellectual Phillip Marlowe in the 40s, for example. In the 50s and 60s, Spillane and MacDonald created amazingly contrasting PIs: Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an old-school hard-ass and misogynist, a creature of the masculine 50s, someone who watches a woman strip naked for him, thinks to himself that “she was a real blonde,” and then shoots her dead in cold blood a moment later; while MacDonald’s Lew Archer is a romantic idealist, an echo of the Beats and counter-cultures of these decades, someone who often articulates a cynical perspective aloud but whose narration is consistently lyrical and impassioned, sympathizing with the worst in who and what he finds in the course of his investigations and consistently seeking the best in them (including falling in love multiple times, and never once, to my knowledge, shooting one of them in cold blood).
Archer’s voice and MacDonald’s prose style are consistently pitch-perfect, and make any one of the twenty or so books in the series (which MacDonald published between 1949 and 1976, while publishing a number of other works under other names; MacDonald itself was a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) well worth a read. But in the series’ best novels—and I think the high-water marks are The Chill (1964), The Underground Man (1971), and Sleeping Beauty (1973)—MacDonald also creates rich and layered multi-generational historical mysteries, plots that stretch back decades and involve literally dozens of characters, different families and settings and eras, and a wide range of core social and political issues. The structures of these novels are ridiculously tight and impressive and the payoffs deeply satisfying (let’s just say that The Chill in particular is very aptly named), but this historical depth makes these books a lot more than just pleasure reads; they are American sagas without question, tracing families and relationships and identities and places across much of the 20th century, considering how both one very full and compelling world (that of Southern California) and the diverse and changing nation that it in many ways encapsulates grew and decayed, lived and died, from the end of World War II to the post-Vietnam and -Watergate era.
Some of the authors with whom I was obsessed for a time I look back on and, well, I try not to look back on ‘em; I won’t name names, but one such rhymes with Dom Chancy. But every time I’ve gone back to MacDonald in the two-plus decades since my first encounters, I’ve found new aspects within these texts, new ways in which they can help me understand not only the mysteries of love and relationships and family (as can, say, Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle as well), but also of American identity; there is perhaps no character type more American than the hardboiled PI, and no PI more worth our time and attention than Lew. More tomorrow, on two incredibly distinct Depression-era novels that can combine to help us plumb the depths of that historically bleak moment in American life.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Pretty good site on all things MacDonald and Archer:
2)      The whole of Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” a short story that can serve as a great intro to the hardboiled PI genre: