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Friday, November 30, 2012

November 30, 2012: November 2012 Recap

[The wintry series takes a break for this recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying. But please add your thoughts on winter in American culture for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
November 1: American Spooking, Part Three: On Grant Wood, American Horror Story, and the question of whether there’s a homegrown American horror—and where to find it.
November 2: American Spooking, Part Four: On the novel and film versions of The Shining, and what their very different endings can help us see about American stories.
November 3-4: Crowd-sourcing American Scares: Crowd-sourced post on American scary stories, fictional and real.
November 5: Obama and America, Part One: An election-week series begins with a post on the stakes of the election for definitions of America.
November 6: Obama and America, Part Two: The series continues with an Election Day post on why every American should read Dreams from My Father.
November 7: Obama and America, Part Three: Next in the series, on the Birther movement and its American cultural meanings.
November 9: Obama and America, Part Five: The series concludes with a post on how history remembers presidents, and how it might remember Obama.
November 10-11: A Very American Election: A few of my responses to the 2012 election results and those of some fellow AmericanStudiers
November 12: Public Scholarship, Part One: Glenn Beck University, David Barton, and the need for public AmericanStudies scholarship.
November 13: Public Scholarship, Part Two: Church and state, Newt Gingrich, and contested national narratives and definitions.
November 14: Public Scholarship, Part Three: William Cronon, anti-intellectualism and universities, and the worst and best sides of the profession.
November 15: Public Scholarship, Part Four: King Theoden, William Hazlitt, Albion Tourgée, and what public scholars can and should do.
November 16: Public Scholarship, Part Five: Facebook arguments, Pamela Geller, and the limits and benefits of complexity and nuance as public scholarly goals.
November 17-18: Crowd-sourcing Public Scholarship: Fellow AmericanStudiers weigh in on the week’s themes, topics, and related questions.
November 19: AmericanThanking, Part One: A series on American people and moments I’m thankful for starts with Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg.
November 20: AmericanThanking, Part Two:  Next in the series, on Robert Penn Warren and his striking and inspiring shift.
November 21: AmericanThanking, Part Three: My thanks for the voice and passion of William Apess.
November 22: AmericanThanking, Part Four: A Thanksgiving special, on a rebuttal to Rush for which I’d be thankful if you’d spread the word.
November 23: AmericanThanking, Part Five: The series concludes with five American artists for whom I’ve very thankful.
November 24: Crowd-sourced Thanks: The thanks of a fellow AmericanStudier—and my request for your contributions!
November 25: Extra Thanks: Three reasons why I’m very thankful for John Sayles, as well as a mini-review of his new film Amigo.
November 26: American Winter, Part One: A chilly series starts with an analysis of winter and the American Dream, as represented by two dark and wintry recent films.
November 27: American Winter, Part Two: The many layers of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, next in the wintry series.
November 28: American Winter, Part Three: The chilly series continues with thoughts on John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound and the Fireside Poets.
November 29: American Winter, Part Four: And the wintry series concludes with my take on two perennial holiday classics and the two American perspectives they include.
Crowd-sourced post on winter this weekend,
PS. So last chance—cultural images of winter you’d highlight? Other responses to the week’s posts?
11/30 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Samuel Clemens (for all things Mark Twain, see that website!); and Shirley Chisholm, the politician, educator, and lifelong advocate for oppressed American communities.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

November 29, 2012: American Winter, Part Four

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On the two different perspectives at the heart of two of our most famous wintry tunes.
In one of my silliest posts, a Christmas Day special from my first year on the blog, I dissected the hidden and troubling meanings behind a few of our favorite holiday songs. The post was largely tongue-in-cheek, although I do wish that Rudolph could gain fame and friends without having to prove his usefulness to his boss first (a theme that connects the red-nosed little fella to one Thomas the Tank Engine). But the idea that even the most innocuous holiday tunes (like all popular art and media, however seemingly simple or uncontroversial) can carry and convey much more complex and significant themes and perspectives—well, about that I was and am dead serious.
Take the example of two of the most enduring and popular wintry tunes, “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.” Originally composed in 1934 and 1942, respectively, these two classics have stood the test of time and remain among the season’s most popular melodies (search YouTube for both and notice how many contemporary artists have recorded versions), and one key reason would seem to be just how universal and uncontroversial they are. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice walk in a winter wonderland, followed by some canoodling by the fire? Who doesn’t dream of a picturesque holiday season, one that can carry them back to fond childhood memories? (Or, if they live in the deep south or southwest or somewhere else where it doesn’t snow, to fond memories of songs and TV specials about snow at the holidays.) These are just some of our most deep-seated pleasures, and I’m not gonna argue the point because I most definitely share them.
Yet just because these songs offer such shared pleasures doesn’t mean that we can’t also consider and analyze some of their more subtle, and in this case competing, themes and perspectives. For example, “Winter Wonderland” provides a consistent thread of optimistic emphasis on the future, seen most explicitly in the lines “Later on, we’ll conspire / As we dream, by the fire / To face unafraid / The plans that we’ve made / Walking in a winter wonderland.” “White Christmas” isn’t necessarily pessimistic, but its dreams focus in the opposite direction, on the past: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know.” I would argue that these two moments represent two distinct kinds of American hope—the latter focused on a desire to recapture nostalgic ideals about where we’ve been, the former more on a hope that we can move into a better and stronger future. While I tend to side more with the future focus—nostalgia, while entirely human and inevitable, has its downsides—I would say that the most enduring hope probably entails a combination of both of these perspectives. So let’s keep singing both!
November recap tomorrow, then wintry crowd-sourcing this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Takes on these songs? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/29 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two members of one of America’s most impressive families and father-daughter combos, Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November 28, 2012: American Winter, Part Three

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On the simple but undeniable comforts of America’s most popular poets.
It’s easy, and not entirely wrong, to be snooty about the Fireside Poets. Across the same eras in which James Russell Lowell was satirizing slavery and Walt Whitman creating a uniquely American poetic style, in which Emily Dickinson and Sarah Piatt were crafting dense and dialogic lyrics, in which Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was using poetry to give voice to slaves and other too-often-silenced African Americans, Fireside Poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote singsong rhymes that would be easily memorized by (and were even at times explicitly addressed to) children. Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and “Evangeline” and Whittier’s collection Voices of Freedom, among other works, demonstrate that these poets were more than capable of engaging with more complex American histories and topics; but still, compared to their contemporaries, it’s fair to say that the Fireside Poets tended toward the traditional.
Whittier’s most famous poem, in his own era and into our own, the epic Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll (1865), would seem to be a case in point. For more than a thousand rhyming lines, Whittier narrates the tale of a New England snowstorm and of the farm family who are pleasantly enclosed by its wintry power. The poem literally seems written precisely to be read at fireside, perhaps for a family to take turns reading aloud as the winter rages outside. It is accessible and readable, with plenty of personification and metaphor and other poetic devices but with nary a single moment that would force a mid-19th century reader to stop and try to figure out the syntax or meaning. And its popularity reflects those elements, as it sold more than 20,000 copies in its first year and remained second only to “Hiawatha” in sales into the 20th century. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with readability or popularity, of course—but if we compare this 1865 poem to (for example) those that Herman Melville would write about the Civil War a year later, it seems again that Whittier eschewed the era’s most vital themes in favor of this more universal and uncontroversial topic.
Yet we could just as easily, and with perhaps just as much justice, turn that idea on its head. With the nation reaching the end of its most divisive and destructive four years, it’s fair to say that Americans weren’t necessarily itching to read creative works detailing those divisions and destructions. Or, at the very least, it’s fair to say that there was even more of a place and role for fireside poetry in such a period, for poems that families could read and share and in which they could find solace from the moment’s worst sides. Moreover, we could even read Snow-Bound, in which a potentially destructive storm ends up creating even more communal closeness and unity, as a very subtle metaphor for precisely the possibility of a more positive present and future despite that horrific war. But even if you’re not willing to go that far, the fact remains that the kind of traditional comfort poetry offered by the Fireside Poets provides very definite emotional and communal effects and power; I wouldn’t want an American literary tradition without the Whitmans and Dickinsons, but I wouldn’t want it to miss the Longfellows and Whittiers either.
Next wintry post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/28 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Helen Magill White, the first American woman to receive a PhD and an important educator and advocate; and Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Records and one of the 20th century’s most significant cultural figures.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

November 27, 2012: American Winter, Part Two

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On the interesting layers to Edith Wharton’s winter tale.
I’m not exactly sure why so many high school students (including this AmericanStudier) read Ethan Frome (1911), but I have a few guesses: it’s technically a novel but is pretty short and reads very quickly; it’s by a canonical author who looks good on a reading list but is significantly less complex than many of her works; it features a doomed love triangle and a climactic sledding (!) scene; it was made into a film starring Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, and Patricia Arquette. Lots there for high school students to grab onto, no doubt about it. But I’ll admit that on both my original reading of the novel and in initially considering it for this post, I had thought of it as pretty slight, as significantly less worth attention and analysis than most of Wharton’s novels.
I haven’t re-read it, and maybe if I did I’d still feel that way. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the novel’s frame story—in which the narrator, an unnamed traveler, is trapped by a New England snowstorm and forced to stay in Ethan’s house and thus learn about his tragic past—adds some very interesting layers to that more slight plot. For one thing, the narrator’s situation eerily parallels that of Ethan as well as the novel’s other two main characters, Zeena and Mattie: all three are likewise trapped in this house, for different reasons but all related to the snowstorm in which Ethan and Mattie met their tragic sled-induced fate. And for another, given that we assume (or at least I do) that the first-person narrator is the one who writes the novel’s third-person middle section, in which Ethan’s story is told as an extended flashback,  the question of memory and accuracy, of truth and fiction, becomes more complex than it otherwise would. Are we reading the version of the story that the narrator learned? If so, is he only imagining the characters’ perspectives? If not, who is narrating this section, and to what end?
All of those layers made Ethan Frome more interesting within its pages. But they also, I would argue, allow us to consider more explicitly the novel itself, and its place in Wharton’s career. Apparently Wharton based the novel, or at least the climactic sledding scene, on real events from Lenox, Massachusetts; events that she, like her narrator, learned about after the fact from one of the participants (in this case a girl named Kate Spencer who worked with Wharton for a time at the Lenox Library). That helps explain why Wharton wrote the novel at all, given how different it is in setting and world from virtually every other of her works. But it might also indicate that the novel served for Wharton as a kind of reflection on story-telling, on the role of a writer in relationship to the places where she travels—since Wharton was a lifelong New Yorker before she moved to Lenox and built her estate there—and the people she both meets and constructs there. Wharton stayed in Lenox far longer than her narrator seems like too in the fictional town of Starkfield, but as a writer, she was perhaps never entirely at home. Neither was Ethan, for that matter.
Next wintry post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two pioneering, talented, and influential 20th century American writers, Charles Beard and James Agee.

Monday, November 26, 2012

November 26, 2012: American Winter, Part One

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On winter’s and America’s possibiliities and limits in two dark recent films.
When you think about it, snow and the American Dream have a lot in common. (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about race. Not this time, anyway.) Both are full of possibility, of a sense of childlike wonder and innocence, conjuring up nostalgic connections to our families and our childhoods as well as ideals of play and community and warmth (paradoxical for snow I know but definitely true for me—snow always makes me think of hot chocolate and fires in the fireplace). Yet as we get to be adults, both also suggest much more realistic and limiting and even threatening details, of dangerous conditions and losses of power and the cold that can set in if we can’t afford to heat our home. And once we have kids of our own, the coexistence of those two levels is particularly striking—seeing their own excitement and innocence and thorough focus on the possibilities, and certainly sharing them, but also worrying that much more about whether we can get them through the drifts, drive them safely where they need to go, keep them warm.
 I might be stretching the connection to its breaking point, but the link might help explain why so many films that explore the promises and pitfalls of the American Dream seem to do so amidst a snow-covered landscape. Near the top of that list for me are two character-driven thrillers from the late 1990s: Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998). Both are based on novels—the former a work of literary fiction by the great Russell Banks, the latter a page-turning thriller by Scott Smith—but both, to my mind, are among those rare examples of films that significantly improve upon the source material; partly they do so through amazing screenplays (Smith interestingly wrote the screenplay based on his own book, and I would argue changed it for the better in every way), but mostly through inspired and pitch-perfect casting: Affliction centers on a career-best performance from Nick Nolte, but his work is definitely equaled by James Coburn (in an Academy-Award winning turn), Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, and Willem Dafoe; while Simple is truly an ensemble piece, with Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton both doing unbelievable work but great contributions as well from Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross, and Gary Cole. And in both, again, the snowy setting—small-town New Hampshire in Affliction, small-town North Dakota in Simple, but they might as well be next door—is a central presence and character in its own right.
The multiple, interconnecting plot threads of both films are complex, rich, and intentionally suspenseful and mysterious, and I’m most definitely not going to spoil them here. But I will say that both are, at heart, stories of the dreams and weaknesses, the ideals and failures, that we inherit from our parents, and how as adults (and especially perhaps as adults struggling with the responsibilities of family and parenthood) we try to live up to and beyond the dreams and ideals but are pulled back by and ultimately risk becoming ourselves the weaknesses and failures. It is perhaps not much of a spoiler either (just look at the titles!) to note that both films, while offering their characters and audiences glimpses of possibility and hope, bring them and us to extremely bleak final images, worlds where the snow storms may have passed but where the silence and lifelessness they have left behind are all we can see and all we can imagine. And both do so, most powerfully, by bringing their protagonists back to their childhood homes, sites (in these cases) at one and the same time of those most innocent ideals and of some of the strongest influences in turning those ideals into something much darker and colder.
When it comes to wintry or especially holiday fare, these two definitely aren’t It’s a Wonderful Life, which certainly connects it own bleak middle section very fully to a world of snow and storm but which of course ends with its protagonist in the warmest and most hopeful possible place (and in a home that has become again the source of such ideals). But either could make a pretty evocative snow day double feature with that equally great film of the American Dream and its limits. Next wintry post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two inspiring abolitionists and women’s rights activists, Sojourner Truth and Sarah Grimke.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

November 25, 2012: Extra Thanks

One more bonus thanks, for the many sides of my favorite American filmmaker and one of my true American heroes, John Sayles.
At this time last weekend I was flying back from Puerto Rico, where I had attended the annual American Studies Association conference (and had squeezed in some beachside tennis as well). It was a great few days for a lot of reasons, but most especially because of a surprise with which my conference time ended—I learned, upon consulting the full program when I arrived, that John Sayles was screening his most recent film, Amigo (2010), as well as holding a Q&A afterward and then singing copies of his newest novel, A Moment in the Sun (2011). Needless to say, it was an amazing event, and reinforced for me many of the reasons why I’m thankful for Sayles. Here are three:
1)      His complex, character-driven movies: I know Amigo has gotten mixed reviews, and that many critics (and some colleagues I talked to at ASA) feel that it’s a bit too on-the-nose in the parallels between its Filipino American War setting and later American conflicts (Vietnam, the second Iraq War). There were a couple moments that perhaps went there, but honestly I couldn’t disagree more—I think the film did a great job focusing on the lives and identities and perspectives of, and the evolving and nuanced relatioships between, its specific characters, in and around a small Filipino village in the second year of the US occupation and the guerrilla rebellion against it. And the main character, the village’s “head man” (played by an apparently legendary Filipino actor), is one of my all-time favorite Sayles characters—which is saying something.
2)      His huge (in every sense) novels: I haven’t read more than a chapter or two of Moment yet, but I can definitely already testify to one sense of huge—the nearly 1000-page novel made my suitcase a lot heavier on the way back than it was going down to PR! But having talked a bit with Sayles about the novel while he was signing it for me, I can also say that it’s huge in a more important sense as well—its ability to engage with a wide and important range of turn of the 20th century histories and stories. Including, I’m very excited to report, one of the under-known American histories to which I’m most attached, the Wilmington coup and massacre. Can’t wait to read the whole thing, although, yeah, it might take a while.
3)      His voice: Much has been written and said about Sayles as one of the most iconic and inspiration independent filmmakers, and I wouldn’t disagree with any of it. But when you see the man in person, as I have on two occasions now—and even more when you get to talk to him one-on-one, as I’ve been fortunate enough to do for a few minutes in both cases—he’s also just a perfect combination of intelligent and inquisitive, confident and open to other perspectives and ideas, grounded and philosophical, political and artistic. It’s not necessarily common that the more you learn about someone, including in person, the more you admire and even idolize them. But that’s the case with Sayles for sure.
Lots to be thankful for there! Hope you had a great holiday weekend, and the next series starts next week,
PS. Who are you thankful for?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

November 24, 2012: Crowd-sourced Thanks

[When things are tough, it’s that much more important to remember the best things, those for which we should say a big thanks. So for this week’s series, I’ve highlighted some American moments, figures, and texts for which I’m particularly thankful. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the communal gratitude of a fellow AmericanStudier—but I know there’s more to share, so please add your thanks, thanks!]
On Twitter, Gavan Dtonic expresses his thanks for James  Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone.”
One more special thankful post tomorrow,
PS. So who and what are you thankful for?
11/24 Memory Day nominee: Junipero Serra, who was certainly more of a Columbus than a Las Casas, but who can also help us connect to the founding and defining cross-cultural histories of California and America.

Friday, November 23, 2012

November 23, 2012: AmericanThanking, Part Five

[When things are tough, it’s that much more important to remember the best things, those for which we should say a big thanks. So for this week’s series, I’ll highlight some American moments, figures, and texts for which I’m particularly thankful. Please add your own nominations, those things for which you’re thankful, for the weekend post—thanks!]
Five American artists for whose works I will always be thankful, and to which I turn for strength and inspiration time and again:
1)      Bruce, and especially this song;
2)      John Sayles, and especially these movies;
3)      Charles Chesnutt, and especially this novel;
4)      Jhumpa Lahiri, and especially stories like this;
5)      Gloria AnzaldĂșa, and especially her cross-cultural perspective and voice.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time, what do you think? Moments, figures, artists, and/or texts you’re thankful for?
11/23 Memory Day nominee: Theodore Dwight Weld, for his ardent abolitionism, his deeply progressive perspective, and his inspiring American marriage, among other things.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 22, 2012: AmericanThanking, Part Four

[When things are tough, it’s that much more important to remember the best things, those for which we should say a big thanks. So for this week’s series, I’ll highlight some American moments, figures, and texts for which I’m particularly thankful. Please add your own nominations, those things for which you’re thankful, for the weekend post—thanks!]
On this Thankgiving, I’d be thankful if you’d pass along this post to any dittoheads you know.
Nothing would make me more thankful—okay, that’s not true, but in this particular space, very few things would make more thankful—than if I never again had to engage in my AmericanStudies thoughts with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk; if, that is, this could be a space where the worst of our contemporary political culture, and even more exactly the most egregiously horrific voices therein, could be genuinely and correctly absent from our national narratives and conversations. But they can’t, at least not entirely, and as I wrote multiple times in last week’s series, there’s a very simple and significant reason why: such voices have become more and more centrally concerned with putting forth their own, almost always profoundly inaccurate and destructive, visions of our national history and identity; and so part of the work of a public scholar in American Studies has to be engaging with and correcting such visions. Beck is probably the most consistent offender in this regard—just google “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” if you doubt it; I’ll be damned if I’ll hyperlink directly to these folks—but today I’m writing instead about El Rushbo (as he calls himself at the end of the story I’ll reference, and to which I also won’t link), and his yearly recounting of “The REAL Story of Thanksgiving” on his radio program.
As Limbaugh frames it, quoting—he claims—directly from William Bradford, the first Thanksgiving was not at all about the Pilgrims’ celebrating their survival of the first year in the New World, nor about the related communal gathering with some of the local Native Americans who had so influenced that survival (not that Rush mentions that latter point at all, shockingly). Instead, in this version, the first Thanksgiving represented the culmination of the Pilgrims’ transition from a socialist vision of land and community to a capitalist one, and thus was a celebration of the first (of many, Rush does not hesitate to add) rejection of an American experiment with socialism. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that he is entirely wrong on the specifics: the first Thanksgiving, such as it was (and it is never given that name in Bradford’s text; the Pilgrims did call a separate event in the summer of 1623 by the name, but that day was devoted entirely to prayer and has nothing to do with any subsequent versions of Thanksgiving), was a multi-day autumn festival with which the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the fall of 1621, and which did include a few of the local Native Americans and most certainly did implicitly recognize that Plymouth Plantation had survived its first and most brutal winter and was beginning to prosper.
Limbaugh is not wrong that the plantation eventually transitioned from a communal to an individual policy of landholding, a shift that took place about two years later and did indicate the continuing evolution of the Pilgrims’ perspectives on their community and mission and identity (topics that require and have received extended and complex analytical work). But Limbaugh’s error in connecting this transition to “Thanksgiving” is to my mind deeply significant for at least three reasons. First, it illustrates that he has no actual interest in the specifics or details of the text he is allegedly citing and even quoting, that instead his engagement with this key American text is both too poor to be accepted in a first-year college writing course and likely to produce many thousands of Americans with a similarly false understanding. Second, it is a great piece of evidence for how much a political approach to analyses of and narratives about our past is on its face doomed to oversimplify and falsify, to find what the political narratives need rather than the historical record contains. And third, and most relevantly to this blog, it demonstrates how much such mythical versions of our history tend to connect to our most overarching cultural markers—such as Thanksgiving; see also the controversies over the Pledge of Allegiance, the “War on Christmas,” the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and so on—and thus seek to define our most shared national events and elements through their particular, political, and propagandistic lens.
The answer, for me, is not to respond with propaganda on or for the other side, tempting as that might be; such a move is probably unwise or at least irresponsible even in the political arena, but is critically off-base when it comes to the work and narratives that comprise American Studies and history and identity. Instead, the way to push back against Limbaugh and Beck’s narratives of our history is first and foremost to point to the history itself, to highlight the texts and voices and stories that constitute it, and ask us to engage with them on their own terms, as fully and broadly as we can, and see what vision of America is the result. I’m pretty confident it won’t be Rush’s, and would be thankful if you’d help prove me right. Final thankful post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Moments, figures, and/or texts you’re thankful for?
11/22 Memory Day nominee: Abigail Adams, quite simply one of the most impressive and inspiring Americans.