[This week I will be highlighting five of the year’s most significant events, and noting some of the ways an AmericanStudier might contextualize and analyze them. This is the first in that series.]
The shocking act of violence that opened 2011 has many echoes across the American political, cultural, and historical landscape.
The early January shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—and concurrent murder of at least nine other people—was I believe the first in which I allowed my planned schedule of posts to be interrupted by a current event and my AmericanStudies response to it. As I wrote in that January 9th post, the shooting can most definitely be contextualized in the long and complex history of assassinations (attempted and successful) in America, and more exactly to the even more complicated and crucial question of what causes such political violence. Although there are the obviously and unequivocally crazy outliers, the Squeaky Frommes and John Hinckleys—the assassins whose motivations seem clearly individual and largely unrelated to their targets—most such violence can and should be linked to political and social trends in the period, and I would say the same about the violence unleashed by Giffords’ young shooter Jared Loughner.
One prominent such trend in both our own and (as I noted on January 9th) John F. Kennedy’s era is a media chorus of hyperbolic, extreme rhetoric. For that reason, I would also connect the Giffords shooting to another of the year’s most prominent and tragic events, the murder of 91 Norwegian teenagers attending a summer camp for young political and social leaders. As I wrote in my July 25th post in response to that event, the writings of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian farmer guilty of that shooting, connect him very directly to extremist contemporary media voices and rhetoric; but even when the evidence is not as present or overt as it was in that case, it’s part of an AmericanStudier’s job to connect trends and patterns across different conversations and issues. Despite their seemingly opposed religious beliefs, for example, we can’t understand either Father Coughlin or the resurgent 1920s Ku Klux Klan without considering what both can tell us about extreme and divisive political and social rhetoric and violence in the era.
Yet an AmericanStudier must also push beyond the details of a particular time period and consider some of the long-range national narratives and questions to which any individual event might likewise connect. In his trilogy of scholarly books on the mythologies and meanings of the American West, and especially in the trilogy’s first work, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973), Richard Slotkin builds a complex assessment of core American identities upon (among many other things) a single D.H. Lawrence quote: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Neither Lawrence nor Slotkin would be surprised by Loughner’s acts of violence, and certainly its Arizona setting would seem particularly appropriate to the Wild West mythologies on which Slotkin focuses in his third book, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992).
None of those contexts necessarily explain the Giffords shooting—but they do provide some of the many complex connections to which an AmericanStudies analysis of it could turn. Next significant event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?12/26 Memory Day nominee: Jean Toomer, the Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet whose philosophical and spiritual contributions to American life were at least as complex and inspiring as his literary ones.
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