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Friday, October 5, 2012

October 5, 2012: Up in the Air, Part Five

[Just to prove that American Studies inspirations can and do come from everywhere, this week I’m going to feature five topics that I was prompted to think about by the US Airways Magazine on my flight down to Philly. Please share your responses to any of these topics, or other American Studies topics you’ve recently been inspired to think about!]
On one of the more emotionally appealing yet complex and problematic recurring American ideas.
The final magazine article that struck the AmericanStudier in me is in the “Adventure” section: titled “The Joy of Tranquility,” the article profiles the Bradford Camps in Maine’s North Woods. The lead-in paragraph makes the article’s argument quite clear: “A rustic camp in Maine that has hardly changed in over a century proves that the amenities of modern life aren’t, after all, so essential.” For the remainder of the article, its author, freelance outdoor and sports journalist Brion O’Connor, moves back and forth between an account of the camps’ extended history and the story of his own idyllic weekend on its grounds. As I read the story, I had two interconnected but interestingly layered responses: I was drawn into the setting and world of O’Connor’s weekend at the camps; but I was also strongly reminded of one of my favorite American essays, E.B. White’s seminal “Once More to the Lake” (unfortunately not available online, but that’s the first paragraph).
O’Connor’s and White’s essays differ in an important way (White is describing a return trip with his young son to the lake where he and his family went for many years when he was young; O’Connor has never been to the camps before this visit in adulthood), but they also share a couple of key and definitely appealing features. In each, the author makes a powerful connection to his familial past through his trip: White, in watching his son experience the world of the lake, connects to his own father’s perspective and identity as a result; O’Connor thinks continually of his maternal grandfather, who loved places like the camps and helped introduce O’Connor to his outdoorsy interests. Such familial bonds are of course universally poignant and compelling, and they also connect to an even broader emotion that the two essays consistently evoke: nostalgia. White does not ever say quite so explicitly what that opening paragraph of O’Connor’s (or perhaps his editor’s) argues, about the benefits of escaping the amenities of modern life; but he does for example note his happiness that a paved highway has not yet found its way to the lake, among other moments that reveal how much “rustic” and “hardly changed in over a century” are likewise important influences in his own perspective.
It’s hard to argue with such nostalgia, not least because who doesn’t long for something from our childhoods that seems simpler, easier, slower? But one problem with nostalgia, as with that question of mine, is that it presupposes that the experience being remembered is indeed a shared one, to which everyone can connect. And there’s one especially telling detail in O’Connor’s story: the Bradford Camps are currently owned by “Igor Sikorsky III, grandson of the helicopter magnate.” O’Connor never mentions how much a weekend at Bradford costs, but I would guess that, while not Sikorsky-level necessarily, it’s not too far removed. A trip to White’s unnamed lake likely wouldn’t cost nearly so much, but it would still require various luxuries—the time and ability to take off from work; money for the various supplies that camping requires; a vehicle with which you can drive from your home to its site—that are far from universally shared by all Americans. Moreover, it’s fair to ask whether the American narratives that privilege places like the camps and the lake aren’t themselves based on certain social or communal categories and identities and what they prioritize or have experienced; and whether nostalgic embraces of these places as more ideal don’t in fact extend those prioritizations and explicitly critique other possible places (like cities). I don’t have any definite answers to these questions, but I’d say they’re worth remembering, even as we feel the tug of O’Connor’s camps and White’s lake.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Places you’re nostalgic about? Takes on such nostalgia?
10/5 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Jonathan Edwards; and Louise Fitzhugh, who like Edwards is best known for one defining work but whose career is similarly much more diverse than that one impressive but singular text.

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