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My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 31, 2012: May 2012 Recap

[A break in the Memorial Day-inspired series to recap the month that was in American Studier. Couple more days in the series, so keep the suggestions coming please!]
May 1: Great Historical Fiction, Part 1: A series on great American historical novels starts with Gore Vidal’s Burr.
May 2: Great Historical Fiction, Part 2: The series continues with Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
May 3: Great Historical Fiction, Part 3: Next up is Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter.
May 4: Great Historical Fiction, Part 4: James Michener’s classic Hawaii carries the baton forward.
May 5-6: Great Historical Fiction, Part 5: Five more great recent novels, from Doctorow to Eugenides, round out the series.
May 7: American Studies Insights, Part One: A series on insights provided by this semester’s classes starts with Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, and narration.
May 8: American Studies Insights, Part Two: The series continues with a thought on lost parents and identity in postmodern American literature.
May 9: American Studies Insights, Part Three: A new perspective on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” as the insights roll on.
May 10: Maurice Sendak: Taking a break from the series to remember and celebrate one of America’s most unique and influential artists.
May 11: American Studies Insights, Part Four: An optimistic insight on gay marriage, thanks to my students and their generation, ends the series.
May 12-13: The Mother of All Stories: A Mother’s Day special on the challenges of motherhood and one of my favorite American texts.
May 14: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part One: First in a series following up a great event on public sites and memory; this post is on Boston’s Old State House.
May 15: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Two: Next in the series, on public sites and memory in Salem (MA).
May 16: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Three: Public statues and sculptures in Salem as the series continues.
May 17: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Four: A musical interlude (and history) keeps the series going.
May 18: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Five: A compelling new reading of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
May 19-20: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Six: The series concludes with some further questions about Salem and public sites and spaces—including one for you!
May 21-25: Nominees Needed for a National Big Read: A weeklong series asks for your nominees for one book all Americans could read at the same time—and I’m still taking suggestions!
May 26-27: Memory and Memorials: A Memorial Day weekend special, on remembering Memorial Day in all its complex historical depth and meaning.
May 28: Remembering Joshua Chamberlain: The Memorial Day series continues with a post on my favorite American soldier and wartime moment.
May 29: Remembering Pat Tillman: Trying to remember the complexities and contradictions behind one of our most famous contemporary soldiers.
May 30: Remembering Danny Chen: Remembering the tragic and important story and history behind another prominent 21st century soldier.
The Memorial Day series resumes tomorrow!
PS. Any topics or focal points you’d like to see in this space?
5/31 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two defining American artists who likely need no introduction, Walt Whitman and Clint Eastwood.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May 30, 2012: Remembering Danny Chen

[The next post in the Memorial Day-inspired series, a repeat of a pretty important (and still very relevant) post from earlier this year. Still plenty of room in the series for your suggestions, and/or guest posts!]
How another tragic case can reveal some of the worst and the best of Asian American identities and experiences in the early 21st century.
As I’ve highlighted before in this space, Asian Americans have had a meaningful and complex presence in our national community for at least 150 years; but nonetheless, this American community has significantly grown, statistically and in prominence, in recent decades. As recent analyses of the 2010 census reflect, the Asian American community is the fastest-growing American population thus far in the 21st century. Such statistical growths can be connected to two recent examples of prominent, successful Asian Americans: Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American basketball player whose New York Knicks’ star turns dominated weeks of news cycles earlier this year (and appeared on two consecutive Sports Illustrated covers); and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the Korean American physician, global health expert, and Dartmouth College president whom President Obama recently nominated to lead the World Bank when its current president’s term is over.
Yet the story of the last year’s other most prominent Asian American, Private Danny Chen, complicates that picture quite thoroughly. That linked New York magazine article does a great job highlighting the key stages of that story, from Chen’s parents’ immigrations from China to his childhood in New York’s Chinatown, his decision to enlist in the army to his deployment to Afghanistan, and, most significantly, the torments and tortures he apparently received on a daily basis from his superiors and fellow soldiers once there; tortures that were consistently and brutally tied to Chen’s racial identity (or rather to ridiculous stereotypes related to it) and that, once again apparently (since information has been at times painfully difficult for Chen’s family and advocates to learn), culminated in the particularly brutal hazing that led to his suicide on October 3rd of last year. Chen’s story certainly has to be contextualized on multiple levels, including in relationship to the war in Afghanistan, the presence of white supremacists and other divisive figures in the military, and national debates over bullying; yet there’s also no question, given what we know about the treatment of Chen, that he was hazed and, effectively, killed, due to his Chinese American heritage, and more exactly to how much that heritage seemed to separate him from his peers, to render him (despite his having volunteered for the US Army) somehow outside of this shared American community.
On the other hand, the fact that we know any of that, and moreover that a number of Chen’s superiors and peers are now in the process of being charged and brought to trial, is due quite directly to Asian American voices and communities. Chen’s family and friends had virtually no luck getting information about his experiences and death out of the military until the Organization of Chinese Americans—NY Chapter (OCA-NY) got involved; his story has since gained in national attention and awareness thanks in large part to numerous other Asian American organizations and communities; and some of our most eloquent and talented Asian American writers, scholars and social activists, and political leaders have dedicated significant efforts to engaging with and extending the story’s questions and meanings. What this tragedy has also made clear, that is, is that the Asian American community in the early 21st century is as multi-layered, multi-vocal, and nationally engaged as any; moreover, these voices and efforts, individually but even more so collectively, have constituted a deeply inspiring representation of American ideals (free speech, assembly and protest, democratic resistance to powerful narratives, and more) at their best.
May recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And any suggestions for the series?
UPDATE: A petition inspired by Danny Chen, and shared with me by Jasmine Stephenson of .

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

May 29, 2012: Remembering Pat Tillman

[The next post in the Memorial Day-inspired series, on a much more contemporary and controversial American soldier. Plenty of room in the series for your suggestions, and/or guest posts!]
Why we must remember the contradictions at the heart of the identity and story of perhaps our most famous contemporary soldier.
Pat Tillman was opposed, in his political and personal opinions, to both the concept of the “War on Terror” and the particular wars (especially the Iraq War) that it precipated. And yet he volunteered to serve, leaving behind (tragically, forever) a successful and lucrative career in the NFL. For those of us American Studiers who likewise opposed and continue to oppose this sweeping post-9/11 set of foreign and domestic policies, and yet who recognize the individual, familial, and communal sacrifices entailed in wartime military service, Tillman’s story is both strikingly representative and yet extremely complex. Does his political opposition render his own sacrifice more genuine and impressive? Ironic and even more tragic? Courageous? Ridiculous?
Pat Tillman was, according to his own words but even more fully to the testimony of his parents and family after his death, an atheist. In an era when a striking strain of fundamentalist Christianity has become at times virtually synonymous with the U.S. military—and I’m familiar with the cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but this zealous missionary fervor is nonetheless at least somewhat new to our military’s overt identity and community—Tillman’s overt lack of religious faith was even more significantly at odds with his public image than were his political opinions. For those of us American Studiers who would like atheist Americans to be more widely acknowledged and accepted in our national conversations, Tillman’s perspective could be an important element in that work; but it’s also a deeply private element, one revealed in large part only because of his death and the subsequent narratives about it. So how we discuss his religious perspective without further dishonoring or even abusing his memory?
Pat Tillman was apparently, as a grudgingly slow and secretive military investigation was eventually forced to reveal, killed by friendly fire. Of all the complex sides to Tillman’s story, this is without a doubt the most difficult and yet perhaps the most important with which we must grapple. Or is it totally unimportant? Does the tragedy, the sacrifice, the familial loss, change at all if Tillman were killed by Taliban fighters, or by local Afghan insurgents? Obviously Tillman’s family deserves to know the truth about what happened, or at least to learn as much as it is possible for them to know (and certainly as much as the military knows)—but do the rest of us? Is that another invasion of his and their privacy? Can we use this information critically, or analytically, or will it just become another chip in various arguments and debates? Can we, that is, remember Tillman, and every side of his story, or will we always already be making him into an icon and an idol, for one purpose or another?
Damned if I know. But on this Memorial Day week, seems like we should try, doesn’t it? More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
5/29 Memory Day nominee: Patrick Henry, whose genuine courage and radicalism were instrumental in starting the American Revolution, whose war-time governorships of Virginia helped it succeed, and whose opposition to the Constitutional convention makes clear just how much diversity of opinion the founding era and community included.

Monday, May 28, 2012

May 28, 2012: Remembering Joshua Chamberlain

[The next post in the Memorial Day-inspired series, on perhaps my favorite American soldier, and certainly my favorite moment from any American war—not, in this case, an oxymoron!]

If I’m wary about identifying distinct literary transitions and turning points—as I have argued in this space that I am, just before identifying one of course—then I’m even more wary about doing so with historical events. Of course it’s easy, and not inaccurate, to highlight singular and significantly influential events like presidential elections (or, on the bleaker side, like the Wilmington coup and massacre with which I began this blog); but to attribute sweeping historical changes or shifts to those, or any other individual events, seems to me to elide the subtleties and nuances and gradualism and multipart nature of historical movement and change. All of this might be especially true when it comes to wars, since they’re so overt and striking and can seem to hinge so much on singular moments and battles and choices. And yet—and you knew this was coming—I think it is possible to boil down the whole trajectory of the Civil War to a single moment and incredibly bold and risky choice, made by perhaps the most unlikely military leader in our nation’s history.
This moment, and everything surrounding it, is a central focus of both Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning historical novel The Killer Angels (1974) and the Hollywood film Gettysburg (1993), so it may be a bit better known than many of my focal points in this space. But then again, every time I’ve told it to someone—and I have done so not infrequently, as it’s one of my favorite American stories—it has been new to them; both of those things (the newness and the favorite-ness) make me feel that it’s okay to include it here. For the contexts, it’s worth noting first, as Shaara does at length, how much the future of the Civil War, and thus America as a whole, hinged on the outcome of Gettysburg—not just militarily but also and more importantly diplomatically, since Confederate General Robert E. Lee was carrying a letter given him by CSA President Jefferson Davis in which, to be brief, the English government basically promised to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy if its army could win a decisive victory on Northern territory. If the war and the American future thus hinged on this battle, the battle itself largely hinged on what happened on the hill called Little Round Top—it was at the extreme Southern end of the Union lines and was the high ground, and if the Confederate army managed to take it, it was likely that the Union army would have to retreat, thus quite possibly giving the battle to Lee. And by the most random but crucial quirk of fate, the Union officer whose regiment was charged with holding Little Round Top was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.
Whole books, including much of Shaara’s, have been written about Chamberlain, so here I'll just highlight a couple of things: he was a college professor of rhetoric and modern languages who had volunteered for the Union army out of a sense of duty; and prior to Gettysburg his principal battlefield experience had been a horrific night (chronicled in his diary) spent huddled amongst corpses during the brutal Union defeat at Fredericksburg (an event that, among others, had led Chamberlain in that same diary to admit to some significant uncertainty about whether he was capable of adequately leading men in battle; and it’s worth adding that many of his men had come to share those doubts, and had nearly staged a mutiny against his leadership not long before Gettysburg). Throughout the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg (July 2nd, 1863), Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were assaulted again and again by Confederate troops trying to take Little Round Top; they managed to hold off those attackers by the late afternoon were virtually out of ammunition (many men were entirely out) and likely could not withstand another charge. No historian or strategist could fault Chamberlain if he had retreated under those circumstances, but instead he called for the ultimate bluff: he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Southern regiment that was preparing for another charge at them. Taken by surprise, and of course unaware of how little ammo their attackers possessed, the Confederate troops surrendered to Chamberlain; Little Big Top did not fall, the Union army took the advantage into the third and final day of fighting, Lee in desperation ordered the infamous Pickett’s Charge, and the rest, of the battle and in many ways the war, was history.
It’s impossible, to reiterate where I started this post, to know for sure what would have happened, in any historical moment or situation, had things gone differently. But it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that had Chamberlain made a different choice, the battle and war could have gone to the Confederacy, and from then on American history would have looked so different as to be unrecognizable. Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor for this moment, would go on to a very diverse and distinguished career, including four one-year terms as governor of Maine, a decade as president of Bowdoin College, and many other posts and accomplishments. But it doesn’t get any more meaningful than that July 2nd bluff. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any soldiers or war moments you’d definitely want us to remember?
5/28 Memory Day nominee: Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest American athlete, and certainly one of the most unique, interesting, and socially significant.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

May 26-27, 2012: Memory and Memorials

[This is the first of a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts; this one a repeat of last year’s still relevant post!]

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation: I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?
I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young solder in that war.
Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having just heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be. More soon,
PS. What do you think? Also, the week’s series is still pretty open, so any ideas for posts—whether by me or guest-posted by you—inspired by Memorial Day?
5/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very talented 20th century artists, Dorothea Lange and Miles Davis.
5/27 Memory Day nominees: Another tie, this time between two very different but equally influential writers and activists, Julia Ward Howe and Rachel Carson.

Monday, May 21, 2012

May 21-25, 2012: Nominees Needed for a National Big Read

[With the spring semester entirely over and my long-awaited sabbatical commencing, I’m using this week to work on various ongoing and new projects, about which I’m sure you’ll hear more in this space. One of those projects could also use your input, though, so I wanted to feature a week-long blog post to ask for that input!]
At next spring’s Northeast MLA (NEMLA) conference, which will take place in Boston from March 21-24, 2013, I’ll be chairing a roundtable discussion on the following topic:
“For those of us who care about making American literature more public, more connected to all Americans and their experiences, identities, and perspectives, the NEA’s Big Read program represents a great model for such efforts. Since its pilot project in 2006, The Big Read has brought a number of great, complex, vital works of American literature to local communities and schools, getting lots of Americans reading and engaging with those works in the process. Yet the program is explicitly local, with different communities reading different books—there are both practical and philosophical arguments in support of that local element, but it does leave room for a more genuinely shared, national engagement with American literature.
In this roundtable session, I’ll take nominations for a nationwide Big Read—books (in any genre) that should be read and engaged with by all Americans. We’ll talk not only about why, about what makes these works so vital and broadly significant, but about the effects, of what in our public conversations, narratives, communities, identities, histories, and stories would change if we read these books as a nation. We’ll also take suggestions and ideas from the audience.
This conversation can help us not only further define American literature and culture, as we collectively understand them, but also envision our own roles and purposes as public scholars of American literature and identity. And since I’m an advisor for the in-development American Writers Museum, I’ll also bring these ideas to that institution, to help shape how it reflects our most shared and significant literary works.”
If you want to be part of the roundtable, feel free to email ( me a brief abstract by September 30th. But in any case I’d love to hear your nominations for a national Big Read text right here in comments, or in the Forum, or more informally by email. I promise to bring ‘em to the discussion and the American Writers Museum too!
Thanks, more this weekend,
PS. You know what to do!
5/21 Memory Day nominee: Robert Creeley, the dense, challenging, experimental, and very important late 20th and early 21st century American poet, essayist, and scholar who helped change the face of poetry and higher education in America.
(Check the Memory Day Calendar each day for the 5/22 through 5/25 nominees!)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

May 19-20, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Six

[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!]
Our sixth speaker, Ginger Myhaver, transitioned us into the Colloquium’s afternoon—and can similarly help me transition into a question for you all!
Ginger’s talk, in which she presented some of her responses to and ideas about the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Derby Wharf project, nicely culminated the morning’s conversations and focal points, but also helped us move into our afternoon walk-and-talk, which focused on a great conversation with the NHS’s Park Historian Emily Murphy about the site, the wharf, and the complex questions of representing and interpreting our shared past. Those questions and challenges make it particularly important for all interested American Studiers to respond to sites like Salem Maritime, and we certainly did so on Saturday.
Which leads me to a question for you, American Studiers: what’s an example of a historic site, a public site, a cultural site, an institution or museum, or the like, that does it right, that engages with our shared histories or stories or narratives or ideas in ways that work for you? And/or, what’s an example of one that comes up short in any of those ways? Let’s keep these conversations going here, if you’d be so kind!
Thanks, next series this coming week,
PS. You know what to do!
5/19 Memory day nominees: A tie between two interconnected, complex, and inspiring Civil Rights leaders, writers, and revolutionaries, Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama              
5/20 Memory Day nominee: Dolley Madison, for her courageous symbolic acts during the War of 1812 (a moment from the trajectory of the US could have gone very differently to be sure) and her generally impressive contributions to our poltical and social culture.

Friday, May 18, 2012

May 18, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Five

[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!]
Our fifth speaker, John Ronan, shared his unique, evolving, and very compelling reading of the public historical connections and purposes behind Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
John’s reading forms the basis for a forthcoming article in the New England Quarterly, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spoil its details here. So instead I’ll just say this: “YGB” is as familiar, for American Studiers and scholars, as an American short story gets, and John’s reading opens it up in a host of new ways. He also breathes new life into a couple equally well-trodden paths: the story of Hawthorne’s relationship to the Salem Witch Trials; and the story of the Witch Trials themselves, and of how we make meaning of them in America.
At the end of the day, and as this blog has proved time and again, I’m pretty antiquarian in what I hope is the best sense: believing that there’s significant value in our continuing engage with some of the most old-school, canonical, traditional American texts and figures, questions and narratives. The key, of course, is to find ways to keep that engagement fresh and compelling, and to make clear why it matters to contemporary audiences and conversations. John’s talk and ideas are great examples of that work, and I can’t recommend highly enough that you check them out in the NEQ.
Final speaker this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Any takes on “YGB” or any historical short stories?
5/18 Memory Day nominee: Frank Capra, one of 20th century America’s greatest mythmakers and yet a filmmaker entirely willing to portray some of America’s darker and more complex narratives and themes as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

May 17, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Four

[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!]
Our fourth speaker, Jim Dalton (with accompaniment, literally, by his wife Maggi Smith-Dalton) talked and performed some of the more interesting details of the life and public work of composer and bandleader P.S. Gilmore.
I’ve written a bit about Maggi in this space before (such as in her role as editor and chief writer for’s Salem “History Time” series, for which I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute a couple articles), but it bears repeating: the Daltons bring a unique and very interesting American Studies perspective and career to NEASA. Equal parts musicians and performers, public and scholarly historians, and educators, their work does what I’d say is perhaps most important for American Studies work in general: connecting and engaging with a broad audience, bringing our interests and subjects to Americans in meaningful and deeply inspiring ways.
Jim’s talk at the Colloquium did all of those things too, and not just because of the two delightful musical performances it included (one of Jim solo on a historic banjo, one accompanied by Maggi’s singing). He got us deep into the musical and biographical histories related to Gilmore, but also touched upon Salem and 19th century American histories, militia musters and the antebellum and early Civil War world, changing aspects of performance and community in America, the National Peace Jubilee, and much else besides. Both Jim’s talk and the one that followed it (on which more tomorrow!) took the focal points of our first three and illustrated just how much they connect to many other, equally interesting and important American Studies questions. And did so very entertaingly to boot!
Next speaker tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any American musicians or musical histories you’d highlight?
5/17 Memory Day nominee: Archibald Cox, the lawyer, professor, and Solicitor General whose most lasting legacy was as one of the most famous and influential Watergate special prosecutors.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May 16, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Three

[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!
Our third speaker, Esther Thyssen, delved into the many complex contexts and meanings behind Salem’s plethora of public statues and sculptures.
Esther’s a thoughtful and talented art historian, and in her talk she did a wonderful job highlighting and analyzing many of the details and choices that make for great public art (as in the truly unique and compelling Salem Witch Trials Memorial) or, well, crappy statues (as in the Bewitched Statue, in which Elizabeth Montgomery is ostensibly put in conversation with the Salem Witch Trials). In keeping with the Colloquium’s focal points, she also very effectively linked the individual statues and sculptures to the places and spaces around them, and considered how they impact our experiences of a place like historic and contemporary Salem.
Yet Esther took her talk and ideas one step further, in a particularly challenging and important way. It’s all too easy to critique the crass commercialism of the Bewitched Statue, for example—but the truth, as Esther nicely noted, is that the initial impulse behind a work, even the funding and government actions that allow for its creation, don’t dictate how it’s responded to, what it means for those who encounter it and make it part of their experience of a place. Her arguments that all of a place’s public art becomes part of how its landscape is inscribed, but also that the inscriptions continue to evolve and shift with each arrival and perspective, are very important for us American Studiers to keep in mind, as we consider the identities and meanings of every space around us.
Next speaker tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any statues or memorials you’d especially highlight?
5/16 Memory Day nominee: Adrienne Rich, the hugely talented poet, scholar and essayist, and feminist activist whose recent passing only reminded us more of everything she has meant to American culture and society for many decades.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

May 15, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Two

[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!]

Our second speaker, Liz Duclos-Orsello, wove theoretical, practical, political, and personal reflections on place, space, and history into a rich introduction to Salem’s many exemplary questions and themes.
I promise that I didn’t in any way request or otherwise engineer this, but I don’t know that it would have been possible for Liz’s talk to complement Nat Sheidley’s any more fully than it did. Both introduced a significant number of crucial questions and themes for our day’s and ongoing conversations, but they did it in very distinct and again entirely complementary ways: Nat’s use of his specific situation and example complemented by Liz’s wide-ranging and theoretical (in the best sense) questions and focal points; Nat’s identification of particular goals and plans complemented by Liz’s overarching sense of both the challenges and opportunities available to 21st century public sites and scholars; and so on.
One of our later speakers noted the unfortunate fact that public and academic historians or scholars don’t always talk to each other, much less work together. But in this room, at this event, on this day—and in NEASA more broadly, I’d very happily say—nothing could be further from the truth. We’re all American Studiers, and as these first two talks proved, putting all of our voices and ideas in conversation can only benefit not only us, but also and most importantly our communities and audiences.
Next talk tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
5/15 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two influential turn of the 20th century authors, L. Frank Baum, who wrote many successful children’s books but none that impacted American culture more than the fourteen set in in the marvelous land of Oz (thanks of course in part to the film adaptation); and Katherine Anne Porter, perhaps the only modernist American author whose use of stream of consciousness could rival Faulkner’s, and for more than three decades one of the premier chroniclers of Southwestern and American communities and lives.