My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

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.

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