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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 29, 2012: February Recap

[Leap year posts resume tomorrow—but on this leap day, a recap of the month in American Studying.]

February 1: Tebow and Abdul-Rauf: The second post in my series on American sports studies analyzes religion, community, and identity through two very distinct individuals and stories.

February 2: The Three Acts of John Rocker: The third sports post analyzes the three complex and compellingly American stages of John Rocker’s saga.

February 3: The Growth of an American Sports Studier: The fourth sports post charts three of my own stages through baseball books I have loved.

February 4-5: A Key Question about Muhammad Ali: The sports series concludes with a question—to which I’d still love your answers!—about Ali’s reception and perception in the 1960s.

February 6: Remembering Lucille Clifton: My Black History Month series begins with one of our most multi-talented poets.

February 7: Remembering the Harlem Renaissance: The next Black History post adds three interesting writers and voices to our memories of the Harlem Renaissance.

February 8: Remembering Anna Julia Cooper: Black History post on one of the late 19th century’s most inspiring identities and texts.

February 9: Remembering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Black History post on an American whose writings and influences touched virtually every 19th century issue.

February 10: Remembering David Walker: The final Black History post, on a very aggressive, angry, and necessary abolitionist voice and work.

February 11-12: Remembering Whitney Houston: A brief tribute to one of the late 20th century’s most talented and troubled American popular artists.

February 13: Remembering Nat Love: A week of love-inspired posts starts with this account of the black cowboy, Pullman porter, and celebrated autobiographer.

February 14: Love in Color: On national narratives and images of interracial relationships.

February 15: Love, Puritan Style: On John Winthrop’s Arbella sermon and Puritan ideals of love, charity, and community.

February 16: Remembering Yasuhiro Ishimoto: A tribute to a Japanese American photographer about whose story, generally and for this American Studier specifically, there’s a lot to love.

February 17: Love Lessons: A Valentine’s-inspired tribute to books, films, and people this American Studier loves!

February 18-19: Tim McCaffrey’s Guest Post: My latest guest post, on Jackie Robinson’s World War II service and activism.

February 20: Precedents Day: My suggestion on how to make this national holiday into a more meaningful remembrance of our leaders and histories.

February 21: The Big Easy and Friends: A Mardi Gras-inspired tribute to cities and the American Studies lessons I have learned from them.

February 22: Chinatown and Los Angeles: The city series continues, with a post on Polanski’s film and the complex histories and stories of LA.

February 23: Images of Charleston: The city series heads east, to analyze three distinct but interconnected images of this South Carolina port.

February 24: Detroit Connections: The series moves to the Motor City, to analyze three distinct historical and cultural connections for a 1960s revolutionary movement.

February 25-26: Cities of Hope?: Philadelphia, Sayles, Springsteen, and narratives of decline and renewal in late 20th and early 21st century American cities.

February 27: 1848: The leap year series begins with three revolutionary 1848 moments and the histories to which they connect.

February 28: 1884: The next leap year post examines new cultural and social presences in 1884.

Hope you’ve enjoyed February here as much as I have! Next leap year post tomorrow,


PS. Any topics or areas you’d like to see in the blog in the months ahead?

2/29 Memory Day nominee: Dee Brown, whose best-selling, tragic, and completely compelling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) exemplifies the very best that revisionist history, narrative history, and quite simply American history writing, scholarship, and study can be.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

February 28, 2012: 1884

[To celebrate Leap Day, this week I’ll be American Studying some particularly interesting leap years. This is the second in the series.]

A year that welcomed a number of hugely important new presences on the American cultural and social landscape.

Even if you don’t agree with Mr. Hemingway that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, … all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before,” there’s no question that Huck’s opening sentence to us readers, which begins “You don’t know about me without you have a read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” signaled a striking new voice in our literary tradition. Yet I believe that Huck has some competition for the most famous 1884 American novel: Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona might occupy less space in our national consciousness, but few other literary works (from any year or era) have created an entire region’s tourist industry; and while the annual Ramona pageant might not reflect Jackson’s activist political vision, her novel is every bit as socially complex and (at their best) progressive as Twain’s.

In New York, two very different but equally significant American cultural icons debuted (in their own ways) in 1884. On August 5th, the cornerstone of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty was laid; a portion of the statue had (as my site’s introductory picture reflects) been debuted at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, and the full statue would be dedicated in 1886, but the cornerstone marked the most important step along the way. Less than two months earlier and just a few miles away, the world’s first gravity roller coaster had opened at Coney Island; Sunday School teacher and reformer LaMarcus Adna Thompson’s coaster cost a nickel, traveled at 6 miles an hour across its 600 feet of track, and wed technological advancements to amusement in a genuinely new way. It’s pretty difficult to imagine 21st century America without either Lady Liberty or roller coasters—the question of which cultural presence has influenced more American identities I’ve leave to the historians and pop culture studiers to duke out!

Perhaps the two most lasting and radical 1884 changes, however, had to do with time. At its May 1st national convention, the American Federation of Labor officially declared the eight-hour workday to be the standard for all working men and women; it would take many more decades of activism and protest for the eight-hour day to become the norm, but the May Day proclamation represented a hugely significant public step toward that shift. And at October’s International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC, convened by that most unlikely of presidents Chester Arthur, geographers and scientists from around the world adopted the Greenwich Prime Meridian, standardizing the world’s measurement of time in a staggering new manner.

February recap tomorrow, next leap year on Thursday,


PS. What do you think? Any suggestions for interesting years (leap or otherwise)?

2/28 Memory Day nominee: Frank Gehry, the award-winning and hugely influential Canadian American architect who radically redefined the concept of home and whose Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is perhaps the late 20th century’s single most famous architectural achievement.

Monday, February 27, 2012

February 27, 2012: 1848

[To celebrate Leap Day, this week I’ll be American Studying some particularly interesting leap years. This is the first in the series.]

Three revolutionary moments and the mid-19th century trends they can help us recognize and analyze.

1848 is internationally famous for its numerous European revolutions, which helped transform multiple nations and the arc of world history in general. Yet across the Atlantic, America witnessed its own revolutionary 1848 moments, events that would transform our own national histories and futures. The first happened in January at a California saw-mill belonging to one John Sutter; Sutter discovered gold on his property, launching the gold rush that would bring hundreds of thousands of new settlers into the state and region over the next decade. Less than a month later, on February 2nd, the US and Mexico finalized the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Western land became that much more available and attractive for such migrations.

Across the continent, the year’s most revolutionary East Coast event was more planned and much less chaotic, but certainly just as striking of a turning point. In July, a handful of dedicated women’s rights activists, among them Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for what became the first official Women’s Rights Convention in American history. The attendees not only expressed and furthered their communal commitment to the cause, but drafted a document, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, that echoed yet significant revised the Declaration of Independence in order to advance their arguments in favor of women’s equality. In November, Samuel Gregory would open the New England Female Medical College in Boston, exemplifying the era’s practical and social advancements for women as a result of these revolutionary efforts.

Perhaps the year’s most subtle revolutionary moment likewise occurred in November, on two fronts. That year’s presidential election, in which the Whig Zachary Taylor defeated the Democrat Lewis Cass, was the first in which all 30 states voted on the same day; moreover, the election results were shared and carried by a group of five major newspapers who had constituted themselves into a new organization, the Harbor News Association—or, colloquially but soon officially, the Associated Press. American politics, journalism, and society were being increasingly linked into an interconnected national entity—and, as the year’s foundings of the Boston Public Library (the nation’s first free municipal library) and the state public universities of Mississippi and Wisconsin-Madison indicated, that nation’s literate and engaged population was concurrently increasing.

Next leap year tomorrow,


PS. Any particularly rich or interesting years you’d highlight?

2/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, regionalist, realist, and travel writer whose best novel remains one of the most significant works in American literary history; and N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa American novelist, poet, and scholar whose Pulitzer-winning debut novel helped usher in a powerful new era in Native American literature.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February 25-26, 2012: Cities of Hope?

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the fourth and final entry in the series.]

Case studies and cultural representations of the balance of decline and renewal, decay and revitalization, despair and hope, at the heart of late 20th and early 21st century American cities.

When I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 2000 (to start my graduate studies), the city was poised on the razor’s edge between decline and renewal. The city’s new mayor, John Street, had campaigned and won the office on a platform of aggressively pushing back against what he termed “blight,” the ongoing decay and destruction of many of the city’s neighborhoods and communities. Over the next decade his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), coupled with downtown and historic district renovation projects and with ongoing gentrification of certain university neighborhoods, would indeed revitalize portions of the city. But in many others, such as the North Philly area within a couple blocks of my grad program at Temple University, the situation in 2012 seems little improved, if not indeed worse, than it did at the turn of the new millennium.

If Philadelphia’s future remains uncertain, a formerly thriving city in neighboring New Jersey seems to exemplify what can happen if the process of urban decay is not arrested. Much has been written about the decline and fall of Newark, from historical accounts to great American novels; but perhaps the best representation of the city’s experiences is in the fictionalized New Jersey city at the heart of John Sayles’ amazing film City of Hope (1991). I wrote at length about City, alongside my favorite Sayles (and American) film Lone Star (1995), in this early post; here I would add that the film’s climactic events for its two protagonists, Vincent Spano’s construction worker Nick and Joe Morton’s city councilor Wynn, highlight both the realities of the blight and the possibilities of renewal. Without getting into too many spoilers, I’ll note that Nick is in worse shape and is hiding in an abandoned building (while the film’s chorus, David Strathairn’s homeless street person Asteroid, echoes “Help! We need help! In the building!”—cries that are not yet answered but do leave open the possibility of aid), while Wynn is leading a march of African American citizens to make their case to the mayor (who is holding an elite fundraiser) for attention and support.

And then there’s Bruce (you didn’t think I could write about New Jersey and not include Bruce, did you?). The last song on The Rising (2002), “My City of Ruins,” became, for obvious reasons including Bruce’s moving performance of it at a tribute event, indelibly associated with 9/11 and Ground Zero; but Springsteen wrote the song in 2000, inspired not by such a singular destruction but by the ongoing decline of his hometown, Asbury Park. Most of the song’s lyrics capture different elements and images of that decline, from the metaphorical (the “blood red circle/on the cold dark ground”) to the literal (the “young men on the corner/like scattered leaves”), the communal (“the boarded up windows/the empty streets”) to the personal (“my soul is lost, my friend/Tell me how do I begin again?”). But in the song’s closing verses, first its prayer for strength and then, particularly, the repeated “Come on, rise up” with which the song concludes, Bruce turns the eulogy for what has been lost into a call for renewal and revitalization, turns his city of ruins into, potentially but powerfully, a city of hope indeed.

A hope, and a call, I believe all Americans should share. More next week,


PS. What do you think? Any histories or texts about American cities you’d add to the mix?

2/25 Memory Day nominee: Chauncey Allen Goodrich, Professor of Rhetoric and Theology at Yale, benefactor and supporter of the university and of liberal education in America more generally, author of influential works on language and grammar, and, most significantly, Noah Webster’s son-in-law and the editor of Webster’s dictionary who helped extend and deepen that hugely important work.

2/26 Memory Day nominee: Johnny Cash, whose hugely productive and influential half-century musical and artistic career is deeply intertwined with numerous significant American moments, issues, and histories—and, of course, full of pitch-perfect classics and wonderful surprises.

Friday, February 24, 2012

February 24, 2012: Detroit Connections

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the third in the series.]

How a unique 1960s activist organization connects to complex, longstanding American Studies narratives in the Motor City.

In early May 1968, a walkout and strike began at Dodge’s Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit. The efforts were the results of activism by a new labor organization in the city, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM); DRUM was created and constituted by African American activists and auto workers, and its equally Marxist- and Black Power-inspired worldview and manifestos critiqued management and the predominantly white United Auto Workers (UAW) in equal measure. Yet in its use of tactics such as wildcat strikes, picket lines, and elections for union executive boards, DRUM firmly located itself in the long histories of labor organizing in America and Detroit labor activism; moreover, one of DRUM’s central leaders, Gordon Baker, was centrally connected to the UAW as well. Any analysis of DRUM’s efforts and identity must begin with such multi-layered ties to organized labor.

At the same time, DRUM’s 1968 origins cannot be separated from other late 1960s Civil Rights and Black Power histories in Detroit. From similarly new and revolutionary organizations such as the Afro-American Student Movement (founded in 1965) and the city’s chapter of the Black Panther Party (1966), to the July 1967 riots that took over the city’s streets and much of the nation’s attention, Detroit was a flashpoint for much of the era’s African American activism. Moreover, those 1960s organizations are likewise deeply interconnected with one of the city’s and America’s most longstanding revolutionary African American communities: the Nation of Islam. Founded in the 1930s by two residents of Detroit, Wallace Fard (who had emigrated to the US from Saudi Arabia) and Elijah Muhammad (who had been born Elijah Poole in Georgia and had come north during the Great Migration), the Nation was by the 1960s a powerful nationwide organization; yet no history of African American activism in Detroit can ignore this central presence in the city’s racial and revolutionary communities.

For an American Studier, however, such historical, political, and social histories must be complemented by cultural ones—and it so happens that Detroit in the 1960s was also home to one of American popular culture’s most significant new communities: Motown. Founded in 1959 by Barry Gordy, himself a former auto worker, Motown Records represented a truly singular presence on the American musical and cultural landscape—an organization that built on the many 1950s developments in American music and the concurrent boom in Detroit artists during those years, but that put such developments and successes in the hands of African Americans in a profoundly new way. Motown’s goals were, of course, to achieve national popularity and sales, which could be seen as quite distinct from, and even opposed to, the more revolutionary purposes and efforts of DRUM and its peers; yet it’s more accurate, to my mind, to call each of these organizations part of an interconnected web of African American activism and power in the city and nation over these tumultuous years.

Last city post this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

2/24 Memory Day nominee: Winslow Homer, whose pioneering artistic career began during the Civil War, ended in the early 20th century, and along the way exemplified new, realistic, and deeply human engagements with social and natural places, worlds, and experiences.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February 23, 2012: Images of Charleston

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the second in the series.]

Three distinct yet ultimately interconnected narratives and histories of one of America’s prettiest and most complex cities.

I don’t know that Charleston will ever escape the shadow of Fort Sumter, the legacy of the shots fired on that federal fortress in the city’s harbor on April 12th, 1861; those shots constituted the action that (by most historians’ accounts) truly inaugurated the Civil War, and while of course they were simply the culmination of a variety of other histories, they nonetheless stand alone as the defining moment that ushered in four of the most destructive and divisive years in the nation’s history. Nor is it coincidence that such a moment occurred in Charleston—South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the union, nearly three weeks before the second state (Mississippi) did so, and Charleston, perhaps the state’s most significant city, was thus one of the hotbeds of Confederate activity from the outset. If Charleston will indeed forever be associated with the outbreak of the war, that wouldn’t necessarily be out of line.

Yet to my mind, if we American Studiers are to identify a defining face for Charleston throughout those subsequent war years, it’s a pretty complex and compelling one: the face of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose wartime diary Mary Chesnut’s Civil War remains one of our literary history’s most singular and significant works. Chesnut’s book, in its multiple editions but most especially in the Pulitzer-winning version edited by C. Vann Woodward (and available at that link), reflects an intimate, evolving, self-reflective, contradictory, and never uninteresting version of the city (although Mary and her politically active husband moved to other Confederate sites during the war as well) and the period. Mary is not without her prejudices and limitations, of course, but she is also, as the diary consistently reveals, nothing less than a three-dimensional and vital American, someone whose voice and identity, perspective and experiences can greatly enhance our sense of our national histories and communities.

Compelling as Mary Chesnut was and remains, however, it’s two fictional Charlestonians whom I would nominate as the best faces to represent the city’s complex American histories and communities. Those two are Porgy and Bess, two African American residents of the fictional Catfish Row (based directly on the city’s Cabbage Row) in the early decades of the twentieth century; they were originally created by novelist DuBose Heyward in Porgy (1925), moved into a play of the same name two years later by Heyward and his wife Dorothy, and brought to international and lasting prominence in Heyward and George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). That latter work, which Gershwin famously called an American folk opera, could be said to have originated an entire new artistic genre, one that brought the lives and voices (in every sense) of its title characters and their community to the kind of heightened and epic status that opera always conveys. While it has been met with its share of critiques and controversy, and is certainly not without its racial stereotypes or limitations, the opera also foregrounds a side of Charleston and America that we would do well to locate at the heart of the city’s histories and stories.

So is Charleston Fort Sumter and those defining shots? Mary Sumter and her revealing diary? Porgy and Bess and their street and saga? Yup. Next city post tomorrow,


PS. Any cities you’d nominate for the final post? I’m open to suggestions!

2/23 Memory Day nominee: W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the subject of my (sadly lost) introductory blog post for many reasons that can be boiled down to this one: I believe him to be the single most impressive and inspiring American. Let’s just make it official: from now on my Hall will be known as the Du Bois Hall of American Inspiration.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 22, 2012: Chinatown and Los Angeles

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the first in the series.]

What one of the great American films can help us analyze about the history and identity of one of the most complex American cities.

I don’t think I need to use too much space here arguing for the greatness of Chinatown (1974). By any measure, from contemporary awards (ie, nominated for 11 Oscars and 10 BAFTAs and 7 Golden Globes) to historical appreciations (named to the National Film Registry by the Film Preservation Board in 1991) to ridiculously obvious criteria (a recent poll of British film critics named it “the best film of all time”!), Roman Polanski’s film noir (although it feels at least as right to write “Robert Towne’s film noir,” since the screenplay is to my mind the greatest one ever filmed) about a world-weary private detective and pretty much everything else in 1937 Los Angeles is one of the most acclaimed and honored American films. It stars Jack Nicholson at the absolute height of his career and powers; features a pitch-perfect supporting cast including legendary director John Huston as one of the great villains of all time; centers on a multi-generational Southern California familial and historical mystery that would make Ross MacDonald proud; is equal parts suspenseful, funny, sexy, dark, and emotionally affecting; and has the single greatest final line ever (not gonna spoil it or any main aspect of the plot here!). If you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do so.
On top of all of that, I think Chinatown is one of the very few hugely successful and popular American films that is deeply invested in complex and significant American Studies kinds of questions (interestingly, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to another such film, The Godfather Part II). By the 1970s it was likely very difficult to remember—and is of course even more unfamiliar in our own Hollywood-dominated cultural moment—just how unlikely of a site Los Angeles had once been for one of the nation’s largest and most important cities; despite its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, LA is more or less built in a desert, and by the turn of the 20th century, when the city’s population had just moved past the 100,000 mark, it seemed impossible for the city to provide enough water to support that community. It took the efforts of one particularly visionary city planner, William Mulholland, to solve that problem; Mulholland and his team designed and constructed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a mammoth project that, once completed in 1913, assured that the city could continue to support its ever-growing (especially with the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s) population.

But if that’s the basic historical narrative of LA’s turning point, an American Studies perspective would want to push a lot further on a number of different factors and components within that: where the water was coming from, and what happened in those more rural and agricultural communities as a result of the aqueduct’s creation; how much of the money involved was public, how much was private and from whom, and if the project benefited the whole of the city equally or if its effects were similarly linked to class and status; what role LA’s significant diversity—even in those early years it already included sizeable Mexican, African, and Asian American populations, for example—played in this process; whether the city’s built environment, its architecture and neighborhoods and streets and etc, shifted with the new availability of water, or whether there were other factors that more strongly influenced its planning; and so on. And perhaps the most impressive thing about Chinatown is that it manages at least to gesture at almost all of those questions and issues, without becoming for even a moment the kind of (forgive me) dry historical drama that they might suggest.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a good bit of time in and around two of America’s oldest and most storied cities, Philadelphia and Boston; and have been close enough to Washington, DC, and New York to feel like I have a pretty good sense of those two equally foundational (at least for the last couple hundred years) locales. But one of the most amazing attributes of this ginormous nation of ours is the number of similarly unique urban settings, each with its own complex and multipart history and story. In an earlier post I recommended Cable’s The Grandissimes as a fictional introduction to New Orleans; Chinatown makes for a pretty great cinematic intro to LA. Next city post tomorrow,

PS. More links:

1) Some interesting interviews on the film that were included as DVD Extras:
2) David Wyatt’s Five Fires, a very engaging history of California and one of the best works of American Studies scholarship I know; its section on Chinatown begins on page 140:

3) Any Los Angeles texts or contexts you’d highlight?

2/22 Memory Day nominee: James Russell Lowell, who while not as talented a versifier as his New England peers, nor as innovative as Whitman, enjoyed a significantly more wide-ranging and multi-faceted career than any other 19th century America poet: from his unique and vital satires (such as “The Biglow Papers”) to his insightful literary criticism; his analyses of communal and political life to his philosophical and poetic embraces of American and human ideals; and his exemplary public scholarship, combining a Harvard professorship with his long tenure editing The Atlantic Monthly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21, 2012: The Big Easy and Friends

[In honor of Mardi Gras, here’s a post from last spring on New Orleans and other cities that I have visited only once (thus far) in my life and yet that in that brief time taught me something significant about America, each in its own very unique way. First in a series on American Studies and American cities, with all new posts starting Wednesday!]

5) Rome: I was fortunate enough to spend a summer month in Rome, for a graduate course, and certainly much of what made that time so memorable was just how different it was from anywhere I’ve traveled within the United States. Yet perhaps the most exemplary such difference actually helped me to understand something that America could do much more successfully—live with our past. I was struck in Rome by how much the truly ancient historical presences there abut and even converse with the most modern ones—you’re walking down a 21st century street, turn a corner, and there’s the Coliseum. Parking lots run right up to the edge of centuries- (if not millennia-) old ruins. You can dip your feet in fountains that might well have been built by a Caesar. Compared to our American tendency to curtain off the “historical” parts of our cities, to treat them as monuments to be visited and impressed by and then left behind as we return to our modern lives and settings, I think the Roman version is infinitely more accurate to the continuing presence and meaning of the past, and potentially a lot more healthy and productive for a society.
4) Las Vegas: And now for something completely different. I didn’t spend much time in Vegas; my family and I flew in and out of it on a trip to visit Western national parks and stayed there for, I believe, just the one night of our initial arrival. And I was only 12, so what made the most of an impression was the newspaper vending machines on the Strip that contained advertisements for escort services; perhaps there’s an AmericanStudies lesson in that, but if so it’s a bit too bleak for me to contemplate. Only slightly less bleak, though, were the interconnected two lessons of the One Armed Bandits: first their ubiquity, there were slot machines immediately past the airport’s boarding gate (ie, as soon as they could legally be there, there they were), in the Denny’s where we had dinner, you name it; and second their destructiveness, as I watched (during the literally five minutes we spent in a casino) a woman win a couple thousand dollars in quarters on a slot and, without pausing, start feeding them back in again. One of the first times I truly understand just how willing Americans are to feed into the worst situations of their fellow citizens, especially those who can least afford it; probably a human lesson, but certainly one that appears far too often in our national history and identity.

3) Los Angeles: But don’t worry, not just in the potentially bleak ways that could continue those Vegas lessons. Sure, LA, where my wife and I spent a couple days prior to a Southern California wedding a few years back, features prominently the Hollywood Sign and everything that it represents, and in the couple hours we spent walking up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards I felt plenty of that gilded surface and saw plenty of the contrasting, darker realities lying just beneath or beside it. But we also visited the site of the La Brea tar pits, which now features a museum that provides some pretty in-depth geological and paleontological examinations of the pits and the world in which they existed; and as we strolled around the site with our two-month-old younger son, we ogled the life-size recreation of a dying mammoth alongside three different elementary school class field trips: one composed largely of Hispanic American kids, one a mixture of African American and Asian American kids, and one that could have come straight out of an Iowa farm town (and maybe they did, although that’d be one heck of a field trip). Only in LA, no?
2) Sitka, Alaska: I spent a week in Sitka with my wife, who was starting a month-long visiting medical residency there. That residency alone, and the work it enabled my wife to do with the largely impoverished and mostly Native American population whom the hospital served, was an inspiring American idea and practice. But even the guy who was just there to see the sights and work on the revisions of his first book got to experience a pretty amazingly American morning: I started by visiting the historic fort, which had belonged first to the Russians and then (after Seward’s folly) to the American settlers; then walked down to the site of the Aleut community that had existed in an uneasy (and far too often violent) relationship to those European settlements; and ended by kayaking out into the harbor, where we got a very overt reminder of the kinds of natural power that the American frontier had always offered and still offers in Alaska: a couple thousand pound sea lion surfaced just a few feet away from our kayaks, said hi (I think), and then moved on with his evening. All four of those communities—Russian Americans, Anglo Americans, Native Americans, sea lion Americans—still occupy Sitka in one way or another, and it’s better and more American for the mixture.

1) New Orleans: I wrote about New Orleans through the lens of Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881) in one of my first few posts, and much of what I said about Cable’s novel, and especially its multi-lingual, multi-national, multicultural, multi-perspectival mélange of histories and peoples and governments and stories, is what likewise makes the Crescent City such a pitch-perfect American space. We visited in the winter of 2004, just about exactly a year before Katrina hit, but certainly that event, both in the horrific inequities and brutalities it exposed and in the inspiring ways that the city has begun to rise from that watery abyss, only amplifies how centrally American, in the worst and the best ways, New Orleans has always been and most definitely continues to be. Makes we want to go back!
I should, and hopefully will, return to all of these places, with the possible exception of Vegas. But in that city, as in each of these cases, what happened there most definitely did not stay there—I brought it home with me, and with it a more complex and layered and meaningful understanding of America and all that I have yet to learn about it. Next city post tomorrow,

PS. What have you learned from the places you’ve gone?

2/21 Memory Day nominee: A tie between two Civil Rights pioneers and leaders: Barbara Jordan, whose legislative achievements and legacy go far beyond being the first black female Congresswoman from the South; and John Lewis, who continues to lead in Congress but whose efforts with SNCC and the Freedom Rides were even more vital and inspiring.

Monday, February 20, 2012

February 20, 2012: Precedents Day

My suggestion, repeated from last President’s Day, for how we can make this national holiday into a more meaningful remembrance of our leaders and histories.

One of the most nonsensical of our current national narratives (emphasis on the national—the top ten thousand most nonsensical current narratives stem from the general area of one Mr. Beck, but I’m focusing here on narratives that have achieved a pretty broad and cross-community level of support and buy-in) is the idea that we have lost a certain kind of civility in our public or political discourse, and that one of our main goals should be finding and reemphasizing it. Civility may or may not be a worthy goal in and of itself, but it has most definitely never been central to our public and political cultures; even a few minutes’ reading of the materials related to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, the controversies over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the extremely heated and divisive Adams v. Jefferson election of 1800, and many other foundational moments should be more than enough to make clear how uncivil those cultures have often been from the outset.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a historical reailty thing, and the goodness or badness of it would have a lot more to do with our own perspectives and agendas in narrating the histories. And the truth of the matter, as it so often is when it comes to our national narratives—hence this blog, at least in significant measure—is that we have precious little interest in understanding or narrating the historical realities, especially since they so often refuse to fit neatly into our simplifying ideas (such as “We used to be one big happy family who were nice to each other, and now we’re so divided and partisan and mean”). Much has been made of a particular line from President Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service, when he expressed his hope that the tragedy’s deaths could “help usher in more civility in our public discourse”; but I would contend that the far more significant sentiment came later in the same sentence, when he called instead for “a more civil and honest public discourse.” Again, whether or not civility is a worthwhile pursuit, I believe that honesty is most definitely a more worthwhile and valuable one—and, not unrelatedly, that an honest assessment of our history would force us to admit that we have never been particularly civil.

So on this President’s Day, I’d like to set, in my own small way and space, a precedent for future remembrances of our national leaders: honesty rather than celebration, accuracy to history’s complexities rather than “respect for the office of the president” (which is really just another way of saying civility) and all that. This does not, I hope it goes without saying, mean simply revisionist attacks on our presidents; those are just as simplifying, just as dishonest, as any hagiographies could be. Instead, I mean genuinely complex, honest engagement with the whole pictures; not necessarily of every president (to put it uncivilly, who really gives a fuck about Chester Arthur?), but of the ones we particularly want to remember as prominent parts of our histories and identities. Obviously such honest engagement would require more time and effort than a simple President’s Day remark allows, but still, even in the shortest lines we can work in starting points toward it: Thomas Jefferson, articulate defender of democracy and slaveowner who almost certainly conducted a multi-decade affair with a slave, impassioned opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts and imperialist who more than doubled the nation’s lands with the likely unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln, who held a nation together and in the process decimated fundamental civil liberties like habeas corpus, who without question would have been willing to sacrifice any pretense of abolitionism to preserve the union but who once the war had begun was a vocal and steadfast defender of African American rights; Ulysses Grant, who presided over the most corrupt administration of the century but wrote and worked ceaselessly for freedmen’s rights; Teddy Roosevelt, who contributed greatly to negative stereotypes of Native Americans and the Filipino insurgency but helped solidify the National Park System and entrench Progressive reforms; and so on.
None of those get close to capturing the complexities of each man and administration, and the precedent would be most ideal if it just inspired more reading and research, more investigation and analysis of these historical figures and periods and the many issues and questions to which they connect. And if in so doing we got a bit closer to the historical realities of who and what we’ve been, and started to emphasize honesty and accuracy more than either agendas or civility, well, that’d be a day worth celebrating each year. More tomorrow,

PS. Links:

1) Full text of Grant’s eloquent and memorable Memoirs (1886):
2) Full text of Roosevelt’s influential and troubling The Strenuous Life (1900):

3) What else should we remember?

2/20 Memory Day nominee (no known birthdate so date of death): Frederick Douglass, one of the most significant and impressive, eloquent and brilliant, and vital and inspiring Americans, full stop.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 18-19, 2012: Tim McCaffrey’s Guest Post

[I met Tim McCaffrey when he was getting his Master’s in English from Fitchburg State’s MA program; if he ever gets the chance to teach high school English, or History, or anything, his students and school would be blessed to have him. But in any case he already connects to audiences through his funny and moving newspaper columns, his blog, and his historical and cultural interests and ideas.]

Jackie Robinson is well known as the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  His achievement is a touchstone of the Civil Rights movement, and the story of how Robinson was able to withstand the institutional and personal racism he faced during his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers has been documented in writing an on film.  What may not be quite as well known, however, is that three years earlier, then Army Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was court martialed following an incident where he refused to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas – eleven years before Rosa Parks took her famous stand in Alabama.
In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson describes what occurred after he sat next to the light-skinned African-American wife of a fellow officer:

“The driver glanced into his rear-view mirror and saw what he thought was a white woman talking with a black second lieutenant.  [The driver] became visibly upset, stopped the bus, and came back to order me to move to the rear.  I didn’t stop talking, didn’t even look at him…I had no intention of being intimidated into moving to the back of the bus.”
The driver eventually returned to his seat and continued the route, but continued to shout threats at Robinson.  At the last stop, the driver ran off the bus and called the military police, who escorted the lieutenant to the duty officer.

Robinson was not afraid to stand up for himself, and he reacted strongly when asked questions like, “Don’t you know you’ve got no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus?”  An argument ensued, and Robinson was charged with disrespecting a senior officer and failing to obey a direct command.
Since Robinson had been nationally famous for his achievements as a college athlete (he had starred in football at UCLA and was the first person to letter in four different sports at the school) the Army brass might have been expected to quietly make his case go away.  Yet the case was pursued.  Robinson’s commanding officer, a Colonel Bates, knew that Robinson was a man of integrity who had been treated unfairly and refused to sign the court martial papers, but Robinson was in the middle of a transfer to a different battalion at the time of the incident and his new commander willingly signed the papers.   Lt. Robinson’s fame did mean that if the powers that were in the Army wanted to avoid negative publicity, there would have to be a fair trial – a courtesy that might not have been afforded to an African-American of lesser stature in 1944.

Also, perhaps due to the high profile nature of the case, Robinson had other advantages.   He wrote, “My first break was that the legal officer assigned to defend me was a Southerner who had the decency to admit to me that he didn’t think he could be objective.  He recommended a young…officer who did a great job on my behalf.”
In the end, a combination of Robinson’s testimony, his lawyer’s skill, and a glowing commentary on Robinson’s character by Colonel Bates resulted in an acquittal on all charges.  As Robinson himself said, “…luckily there were some members of that court-martial board who had the honesty to realize what was going on.”

From Robinson’s comments, it is clear that he did not expect fair treatment, and that he considered it fortunate to receive an even break.  It is frightening to think how many other African-Americans, who didn’t have the advantage of the public spotlight, may have been railroaded into unfair trials and undeserved punishments.
Jackie Robinson was granted an honorary discharge from the Army shortly after his acquittal.  He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945.  He then played a season with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team before joining the Dodgers and changing professional sports forever.  Following his baseball career, Robinson remained active in the Civil Rights movement.  His status as a great American and an important historical figure is unquestioned.  When the need arose for someone to stand up and challenge the racist status quo, Jackie Robinson was always willing to answer the call, but as he wrote, “…there is one irrefutable fact of my life which has determined much of what happened to me:  I was a black man in a white world.  I never had it made.”

A couple of links if you want to learn more:

Thanks, Tim!

More next week,

2/18 Memory Day nominee: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and scholar whose best novel, one amazing short story, and pioneering work of literary criticism might all be better than her (still plenty great) best-known novel.
2/19 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power plant worker and activist whose inspiring life and mysterious death made her an ideal subject for one of the 1980s most interesting American Studies films; and Amy Tan, whose multigenerational, transnational American novels and non-fiction pieces on family, heritage, and identity I’d put right there with Morrison’s and every other 20th century great’s.

Friday, February 17, 2012

February 17, 2012: Love Lessons

[The last in the love-inspired series, on some of this American Studier’s loves!]

When I was 5 (or so), I fell in love with Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix (1957). Ormondroyd’s whimsical and magical and deeply affecting children’s novel taught me a great many serious and life-defining things, from the power of the imagination to recognizing and accepting and growing through loss. But it also taught me about fauns and Pan, about banshees and sea serpents, about some of the truest meanings of mythology and fantasy and story in ways that prepared me for much of what I would love most over the next three decades, from Tolkien and George R.R. Martin to Leslie Marmon Silko and Junot Díaz. And most of all, Ormondroyd, like Lobel and Sendak and Seuss and their peers, taught me to listen and to read.
When I was 15 (or thereabouts), I fell in love with Alistair MacLean’s H.M.S. Ulysses (1955). MacLean’s gripping and thrilling and hugely moving novel of a British destroyer in the North Atlantic during World War II taught me about the deadly serious power of waves and wind, of frost and ice, of the true meaning of a U-Boat lying in ambush or a fighter plane bearing down on a convoy. But it also taught me about cowardice and heroism, about victory and defeat, about some of the truest meanings of sacrifice and brotherhood and history in ways that likewise prepared me for much of what I would love over the next two decades, from O’Brien and Samuel Eliot Morrison to Ambrose Bierce and Kurt Vonnegut. And most of all, MacLean, like Chesnutt and Faulkner and Penn Warren and others, taught me that history is alive and present still.

When I was 25 (more or less), I fell in love with Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Nolan’s challenging and funny and profoundly unique and perfect film about a man with no memory who cannot escape the past taught me about the ways in which story and structure and style can so fully complement and complicate and enrich theme and meaning, making every moment and frame and choice part of an absolutely unified whole. But it also taught me about memory and truth, about story and identity, about how much narratives can define who we are and who we have been and who we hope to be, ideas that have prepared me for much of what I have written and thought about over the decade since. And most of all, Nolan, like Sayles and Jason Bourne and Shakespeare in Love and others, taught me that great art can be both entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.
As I approach 35 (nearly), I’m still in love with all those texts and artists, all those meanings and lessons, and many more. I am who I am because of them, as I am because of the love of the many amazing people with whom I’ve shared such works (most especially Mom, Dad, and Connie). But I have also fallen in love with Aidan Orion Tsao Railton (2005) and Kyle Vincent Tsao Railton (2007). Those two smart and crazy-making and beautiful boys have taught me more than I could ever put into words here, and of the many things I love to imagine about them, high on the list is when I can help them find new loves of their own—and add those loves and their lessons to my identity. Happy Valentine’s week! More this weekend, the next guest post!

PS. Links:

1)      Part of the opening chapter of David:

2)      Some good info on MacLean and Ulysses:

3)      The great last scene from Memento (only watch if you’ve already seen the movie!):

4)      Any loves and lessons you want to share?

2/17 Memory Day nominee: Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party whose complex and influential 20th century American life also included community social programs and activism in Oakland, publishing the memoir Revolutionary Suicide (1973), and receiving a PhD in social philosophy from UC Santa Cruz (all before it was tragically cut short by a senseless street killing when Newton was just 47).