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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April 30, 2013: April 2013 Recap

[Communism series resumes tomorrow; today, recapping the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
April 1: Baseball in America: Symbolism: An Opening Day series starts with the symbolic cultural uses to which we have put the national pastime.
April 2: Baseball in America: The Black Sox: The series continues with three different ways to AmericanStudy baseball’s most famous scandal.
April 3: Baseball in America: Ruth and Gehrig: Two iconic baseball stars and the distinct national ideals to which they connect, as the series rolls on.
April 4: Baseball in America: International Arrivals: Two recent communities of international major leaguers, and the immigration histories they can help us remember.
April 5: Baseball in America: Nine Inspiring Innings: The series concludes with the baseball book that serves as a model of public scholarly writing and analysis.
April 6-7: The Crowd-sourced World Series: Fellow AmericanStudiers chime in on the baseball series.
April 8: Taxes in America: The Stamp Act: A Tax Day-inspired series starts with the Revolutionary controversy that originated many of our national narratives about taxes.
April 9: Taxes in America: The Whiskey Rebellion: The series continues with the complex Early Republic conflict that reflected some of our deepest debates and divisions.
April 10: Taxes in America: Lincoln and Taxes: On the largely unknown and significant Civil War origins of the income tax, as the series rolls on.
April 11: Taxes in America: The Populists and Taxes: What we can take away from the Populist Party’s influential support for a progressive income tax.
April 12: Taxes in America: The Big Question: The week’s series concludes with three different AmericanStudies answers to the big question about taxes in 21st century America.
April 13-14: Taxes in America: The Cost: But wait—a special weekend post to round out the tax series, this one on what The Wire reveals about the cost of our current attitudes toward taxation.
April 15: Comic Book Heroes: Dick Tracy: A series on AmericanStudying comic book heroes starts with a couple key contexts for one of the first such heroes.
April 16: Comic Book Heroes: Superman and Batman: The series continues with two contrasts between our two most iconic superheroes.
April 17: Comic Book Heroes: Wonder Woman: The many American layers to the creation and development of our first female superhero, as the series rolls on.
April 18: Comic Book Heroes: Black Panther: Black Power, race in popular and American culture, and the first prominent black superhero.
April 19: Comic Book Heroes: The Punisher: The series concludes with the myths and limits of vigilante justice in American culture and history.
April 20-21: Crowd-sourced Comic Books: Lots of great thoughts, responses, and links on the week’s topics and themes, as shared by fellow AmericanStudies heroes!
April 22: Reading Du Bois, Part One: A series on my favorite American, and the subject of a special class I’m teaching this fall, starts with the one Du Bois book all Americans should read.
April 23: Reading Du Bois, Part Two: The series continues with Du Bois’s flawed but significant first novel.
April 24: Reading Du Bois, Part Three: The work that redefined an entire profession, and then went even further, as the series rolls on.
April 25: Reading Du Bois, Part Four: Three distinct and impressive sides to Du Bois’s lifelong journalistic work.
April 26: Reading Du Bois, Part Five: My part of the series concludes with three inspiring Du Bois letters.
April 27-28: Roopika Risam’s Guest Post: Rounding out the series with a guest post from one of our most talented Du Bois scholars.
April 29: Communism in America: “The Palace-Burner”: A May Day inspired series starts with a post on empathy, us vs. them narratives, and one of my favorite American poems.
Next post on Communism in America tomorrow,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered on the blog? Guest Posts you’d like to write?

Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29, 2013: Communism in America: “The Palace-Burner”

[As we celebrate another May Day, hopefully with no bombings, a series on some AmericanStudies connections to the legacy of Herr Marx. Add your takes on these topics or any connections you’d make for a weekend post that shares the wealth!]
On the masterpiece of a poem that destroys easy “us vs. them” narratives.
I made the case for my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, in one of my first posts, and did so in large part through her best poem, “The Palace-Burner.” There are a lot of factors that make “Palace-Burner” one of the great American poems, but at the top of the list for me would be Piatt’s incredibly sophisticated representation—through the lens of a mother and young son discussing a newspaper picture of a female rebel from the 1871 Paris Commune—of what I called in this post three crucial and interconnected levels to empathy: “connecting to seemingly distant others, working to understand those to whom we’re close, and examining our own identities through those lenses.”
This wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1870s (although given the immense popularity of Horatio Alger novels in the period, maybe it was), but over the century and a half since I would say that there have been few world communities with which Americans have had, collectively, a more difficult time empathizing than communists. Of course there are significant exceptions, both in terms of time periods during which that philosophy has seemed more appealing (such as the Depression, about which more in Wednesday’s post) and in terms of American communities who have been sufficiently disenfranchised from our dominant national narratives to see the wisdom of such alternatives (such as African Americans in the mid-20th century, on whom likewise more on Wednesday). But when it comes to those dominant narratives, communism has been one of the most consistent “them’s” to our constructed “us” for a long while.
There would be various possible ways to complicate and revise that kind of “us vs. them” narrative, including highlighting the many originating and influential forms and moments of American socialism and communism. But Piatt takes another, and to my mind particularly compelling, tack: creating in her poetic speaker a woman who seems thoroughly removed from not only communism but political conversations in general (especially in the “separate spheres” mentality that continued to reign for most middle-class American families in the period); and then giving that speaker the opportunity to consider whether and how she and a foreign communist woman might have anything in common. She doesn’t come to any easy or comfortable answers—empathy is neither of those things in any case—but she asks the questions, and that seems to me to an impressive model for all of us.
April Recap tomorrow, and this series resumes on Wednesday,
PS. What do you think? Texts about communism you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

April 27-28, 2013: Roopika Risam's Guest Post

[Roopika Risam is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Emory University. In the fall, she will begin working as an assistant professor of world literature and English education at Salem State University. Her current project, “Oceans of Black, Brown, and Yellow: Literatures of Global Solidarity,” examines W.E.B. Du Bois in the context of postcolonial and African American studies. She also runs the Postcolonial Digital Humanities website with Adeline Koh.]

As a crowd of 250,000 gathered on the National Mall for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, announced that W.E.B. Du Bois had died in Ghana the night before. Briefly eulogizing Du Bois for the crowd, Wilkins said, "Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause."

Wilkins’s remarks anticipate a trend in Du Bois scholarship that charts two different paths of Du Bois's life. In this narrative, the Du Bois of the early years appears the consummate race man. His work on African Americans (The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction in America) and his activism (the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, The Crisis) firmly credential him as a scholar-activist dedicated to the problem of the color line in the US. The other Du Bois was a version at once embarrassing and dangerous to the African American political establishment. He began embracing black separatism, resigned from the NAACP and The Crisis by 1934, and returned to the NAACP in 1944 only to be dismissed four years later for ideological disagreements - namely his leftists stance on global politics and emphatic support for decolonization movements worldwide. Facing increased scrutiny and surveillance by the US government, Du Bois eventually expatriated to Ghana, where he died in effective exile on the night before the March on Washington. Thus, the general trend in Du Bois scholarship, particularly in the work of David Levering Lewis and Henry Louis Gates, perpetuates the false dichotomy between a younger Du Bois committed to African American freedom struggles and an older Du Bois whose global commitments signify a rejection of his domestic ones.  

The tendency to identify this particular trajectory for Du Bois’s work is a troubling one. In fact, Du Bois's international vision originates at the beginning of his scholarship, with The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in 1896. It continues in The Souls of Black Folk, when Du Bois articulates his now famous statement, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line" and defines the color line as "the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in American and the islands of the sea." It emerges again in The Gift of Black Folk (1924), when Du Bois theorizes the relationship between enslaved African labor and the rise of modernity. These are but a few examples of many that complicate the tendency to position Du Bois's early writings as national while neatly confining Du Bois's international outlook to his waning years.

Two of Du Bois’s novels take up the relationship between struggles of African Americans and those of oppressed people of color around the world: Dark Princess (1928) and Worlds of Color (1961). Discussing Du Bois's literary writing is always a fraught proposition because the general consensus - from Du Bois's contemporaries, current scholars, and even my own students - is that fiction-writing is not one of Du Bois's strengths. Leaving questions of aesthetics for another time, however, these two novels offer insight on the intricacies of Du Bois's global visions.

Dark Princess tells the story of Matthew Towns, an African American medical student who exiles himself to Berlin, where he meets the mysterious and beautiful Princess Kautilya of the fictional Indian state of Bwodpur. As a member of the Council of Darker Races, an Afro-Asian solidarity movement committed to the end of colonialism and promotion of communism, Princess Kautilya recruits the lovestruck Matthew for her cause. Matthew returns to the US, where he works as Pullman Porter, serves prison time for a botched bombing plot against the Ku Klux Klan, becomes a Chicago politician, and engages in manual labor. Matthew and Princess Kautilya unite permanently at the end of the novel to celebrate the birth of their son Madhu, the Maharajah of Bwodpur, who, Du Bois writes, is the “Messenger and Messiah to all the Darker Worlds.”

Worlds of Color, the third novel in the Black Flame trilogy, narrates the travels of Manuel Mansart, protagonist of the trilogy's first two novels: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957) and Mansart Builds a School (1959). Mansart travels to Europe and Asia to learn more about the world, thinking he will discover that skin color is a trivial matter everywhere but the United States. Instead, he learns about the global reach of imperialism and the significant percentage of the human population that is subject to racialized labor. Mansart returns from his trip understanding that a great mass of people of color around the globe are a force waiting to be united and radicalized against the political, economic, and social forces that have oppressed them.

The two novels offer strikingly different iterations of solidarities between African Americans and oppressed people of color. Writing Dark Princess during the 1920s, Du Bois seems immersed in the rhetoric of high imperialism and can only imagine how it might end. As a result, his vision – the Council of Darker Races, the union of Matthew and Princess Kautilya, and the birth of their half-black and half-Indian child – is highly romanticized, hinging on international intrigue, forbidden love, and the act of reproduction. By the time Du Bois writes Worlds of Color, however, he has witnessed decolonization in action and imagines a different solution: a global mass in revolt. Yet, in the competing visions articulated in Dark Princess and Worlds of Color, we find Du Bois deeply invested in the intersections of African American and global struggles for emancipation. As such, Du Bois’s literary writings challenge narratives of Du Bois’s work that speciously suggest he traded his dedication to African Americans for the rest of the world over the course of his life.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]

Friday, April 26, 2013

April 26, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Five

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On three texts that reveal how much Du Bois valued the mostly lost art of letter-writing.
In 1905, Du Bois wrote a letter to Vernealia Fareira, a Pennsylvania high schooler who had, Du Bios had apparently learned, been neglecting her education. In this missive, which Du Bois pointedly drafted on the back of a questionnaire on “School Children and the Law,” he pulled no punches, noting sternly that for a young woman living in her era, and an African American young woman at that, “her bitterness amounts to a crime.” But he also expressed his characteristic optimism about the opportunities and life that lay before her, and did so, despite his by-this-time significant professional successes and prestige, in an intimate and humble voice: “I wonder if you will let a stranger say a word to you about yourself?” The letter is a truly unique and amazing American primary source.
In March 1913, Du Bois took to the pages of The Crisis to write an open letter to the newly inaugurated president, Woodrow Wilson. While this text could be read as an editorial, which of course an open letter from a magazine’s editor undoubtedly is, I would nonetheless argue that Du Bois hoped and intended that the letter would reach Wilson, and directly influence his administration as a result. Certainly his tone is in many ways just as direct and intimate as in the letter to Ms. Fareira, as in his closing appeal: “In the name then of that common country for which your fathers and ours have bled and toiled, be not untrue, President Wilson, to the highest ideals of American Democracy.” The letter thus reflects not only the uncertain but hopeful questions of how this new president would address the crises in American racial and social life, but also and even more tellingly how much Du Bois embodied a generation of African Americans unafraid to add their voices to such political and national conversations.
In October 1914, Du Bois wrote a letter to his 14 year-old daughter Yolande, who was then studying across the pond in England. As an AmericanStudier, as a father, and as a person, there’s not much I can say about the specifics of this letter, other than to beg you to read it. It’s one of the most beautiful and perfect American texts I know, and illustrates just how much Du Bois was struggling and engaging with, and represents in his voice and writing, the most shared and universal and human questions and themes, as well as all the more specific historical and social and political and cultural and philosophical and pedagogical ones. It’s quite literally the case that on every issue that matters to me (outside of ones about which he couldn’t be expected to write, such as the influence of Springsteen or The Wire), Du Bois had something meaningful, complex, and beautiful to say. I look forward to introducing him and his voice to my students this fall.
Special guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

April 25, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Four

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On three distinct and equally impressive sides to Du Bois’s journalistic work.
From 1910 to 1934, while he was writing the books featured in the prior two posts, researching and teaching at multiple institutions, helping found and run the NAACP, and doing roughly three thousand other things, Du Bois created and edited The Crisis, a magazine that engaged more fully with African American issues, communities, and voices than any other American text or conversation in the era (and perhaps since). The Crisis was particularly strong at covering and editorializing about national news stories that would otherwise have received far less attention, including the lynching epidemic, the negligence and mistreatment directed at African American World War I veterans, and the protests surrounding Birth of a Nation, among numerous other stories during Du Bois’s editorial tenure. As a news periodical alone, Du Bois’s magazine is an indispensable American source.
Like its creator, however, The Crisis wasn’t the slightest bit content being or doing just one thing. In an era that has been called the nadir of African American life and culture, Du Bois also used his magazine both to highlight existing literary and artistic voices and to encourage further cultural work in the African American community. When novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset came on board in 1919 as the magazine’s literary editor, she helped deepen and extend that artistic engagement, allowing The Crisis—despite its continuing dedication to news coverage—to rival the era’s other modernist little magazines in both the breadth and quality of its cultural work. Given that this side to Du Bois’s journalistic endeavor has been described as a vital foundation for and influence on the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, it’s hard to overstate just how significant his literary and artistic support would be in American culture and life.
Those historical and cultural components make The Crisis exemplary and seminal in early 20th century America, but it’s Du Bois’s own writing in the magazine that make me excited to include it in a course on him as an author. Just about any editorial from his quarter-century of work would suffice to illustrate that writing, but so too does the brief November 1910 column with which Du Bois launched the magazine. I give you, for example, this sentence, on why Du Bois sees his moment as the titular crisis: “Catholicity and tolerance, reason and forbearance can today make the world-old dream of human brotherhood approach realization; while bigotry and prejudice, emphasized race consciousness and force can repeat the awful history of the contact of nations and groups in the past.” Check out the parallelism and alliteration within those parallel structures alone; Du Bois could just plain write, and The Crisis reflects his own talents just as much as it does its historical and cultural contexts.
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

April 24, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Three

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On the book that redefined an entire profession—and then went even further.
The development of American historiography is a complex and multi-part story, and would certainly have to include mid-19th century pioneers such as Francis Parkman, the 1884 founding of the American Historical Association, and the turn-of-the-century popularization of scholarly history by figures such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles and Mary Beard, among many other moments and figures. So it’d be crazy of me to suggest that one historiographical book stands out as both the single most significant turning point in the profession and the best reflection upon its prior inadequacies, right? Well, then you’re going to have to call me crazy, because I would describe Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935) as both of those things.
Even if we knew nothing of the half-century of American historical writing that preceded Du Bois’s book, its strengths and achievements would be clear and impressive. In an era when extended archival research was almost impossible for most scholars, especially those not supported by wealthy institutions (which Du Bois had not been for decades by the time he published Black Reconstruction, having worked primarily at Atlanta  University), Du Bois produced a work of history that relied entirely on archival and primary documents, materials he used to develop original, thorough, and hugely sophisticated and convincing analyses of Reconstruction’s efforts, effects, successes, and shortcomings in every relevant state and community. Moreover, since that prior half-century of historical writing, at least on Reconstruction and related themes, had been almost entirely driven by established narratives and myths, Du Bois could not do what virtually every other historian since has done—build on the work done by his or her peers, add his or her voice to existing conversations. He had to invent that work and those conversations, and did so with unequivocal brilliance.
That’d be more than enough to make Black Reconstruction a must-read, but in its final chapter, “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois added two striking additional layers to the book. First and foremost, he called out that half-century of historiographical mythmaking, creating a devastatingly thorough and convincing critique of the historians and works that had combined to produce such a false and destructive narrative of Reconstruction (one echoed and extended by pop cultural works such as Thomas Dixon’s novels, The Birth of a Nation, and, a year after Du Bois’s book, Gone with the Wind). Yet at the same time, decades before Hayden White, Du Bois uses this particular case to analyze the subjective and political contexts that inform even the best history writing, recognizing the limitations of the concept of “scientific” scholarship well before the profession was able or willing to do so. On every level, a book ahead of its time—and still vital to ours.
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

April 23, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Two

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On the entirely unknown and far from perfect novel that fills a significant American gap.
Somehow, in the midst of all the other duties and successes of his incredibly busy and productive life, W.E.B. Du Bois found time to write a handful of novels. My guest poster is planning to address two of the more interesting and significant ones, Dark Princess (1928; generally considered his fictional masterpiece) and Worlds of Color (1961; the last book published in Du Bois’s lifetime), and I’ll leave them for her. Since both were written by a mature and prominent Du Bois—Dark was published when he was 60, Worlds when he was 93 (!)—they’ve received a substantial amount of attention, both in their own moment and in subsequent scholarship. Far less famous, however, is Du Bois’s first published novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911).
Quest, which tells the story of multiple generations of African Americans in a turn of the century Southern community, has been neglected in part for understandable reasons: its style, while straightforward and engaging, lacks any of the technical skill that differentiates great from merely effective novels; it also had the misfortune of being a work of regional realism in the decade when authors such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein were introducing new, modernist forms for fiction. Yet much the same could be said for other, currently far more well-known African American novels of Reconstruction and its aftermath—such as Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood (1903)—and to my mind Du Bois’s novel certainly deserves a place among that group.
Moreover, Du Bois’s sociological training and perspective differentiates Quest from any other novel of the period—and most other American novels period—in at least one crucial regard. Although many of the novel’s chapters focus on individual characters, it builds toward a far more overarching and analytical subject: the way in which the cotton industry links communities as seemingly disparate as elite Northern industrialists and provincial Southern white supremacists, cynical Washington politicians and young students at a local African American school. Such connections, of course, extended back in history into the antebellum world of slavery, yet were also evolving in complex and crucial ways in the postbellum period, particularly for free African Americans struggling to achieve their own quests for self-sufficiency and success; Du Bois’s novel likewise engages with these different historical and cultural sides to a shared and enduring American issue. In those ways, his novel can also be seen as embodying—perhaps solely, and certainly significantly—an African American naturalism.
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Monday, April 22, 2013

April 22, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part One

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On the one Du Bois book that all Americans should read.
I never quite got around to making my own nomination for the National Big Read, perhaps because I have so many books that I’d really love to ask all Americans to read: such as The Marrow of Tradition, Ceremony, and The Namesake, to name only three of the chief contenders. I’d gladly make the case for any and all of those novels, but it’s also possible to argue that for such a shared book it might make more sense to go with non-fiction: with a compelling personal narrative of significant American experiences, or a convincing sociological engagement with complex communal issues, or an inspiring philosophical call for national unity and progress. And it just so happens that W.E.B. Du Bois, at the youthful (I hope!) age of 35, published a book that was all those things and a great deal more: The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
In two of the three posts cited in my intro blurb above I referenced “Of the Training of Black Men,” and certainly that individual chapter represents the whole of Souls, and its ability to move between those different genres and styles (along with other historical and cultural ones), very effectively. It also illustrates two of the other striking formal elements to Du Bois’s work in the book—his use of epigraphs and allusions from the full (available) range of world history, literature, philosophy, mythology, and religion, to put his voice and book in conversation with everyone and everything else (and demonstrate just why Shakespeare does not wince when Du Bois sits with him); and his inclusion of a bit of musical notation at the start of each chapter, notes and melodies drawn from the “sorrow songs” (the African American and slave spirituals) about which he writes eloquently in the book’s concluding chapter. These two intertextual elements exemplify the book’s unique combination of breadth and depth, its coupling of a world-wide reach with an incredibly nuanced depiction of its titular American community.
In many ways, I’d say that it’s precisely that combination of depth and breadth that defines Du Bois’s greatness. On the one hand, he spent much of his near-century of life writing, thinking, and working unceasingly in response to one specific (if also sweeping and vital) issue: “the problem of the color-line,” as he put it at the outset of Souls. Yet on the other hand, to read Du Bois is to find serious and significant engagement with, it seems, every meaningful historical, cultural, and human question of his era, and many of ours as well. And Souls achieves that balance remarkably well: the book is sophisticated enough in its specific analyses to be considered one of the earliest works of American sociology; yet it’s sweeping enough in its philosophical, personal, literary, and artistic elements and achievements that I’d nominate it for a National Big Read text with no hesitation. What if the Great American Novel isn’t a novel at all, but a genre-busting book by one of our most inspiring icons?
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

April 20-21, 2013: Crowd-sourced Comic Books

[The week’s series has featured AmericanStudies takes on some of our most popular comic book characters. This super-powered weekend post is drawn from the responses and thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours to the super-group, please!]
Throughout this week, Darren Reid has been sharing Tweets and thoughts on American superheroes, including this article on gender in early Superman comics. Thanks also to Steve Sarson for connecting me to Darren’s posts!
Virginia Clemm Poe responds to Wednesday’s Wonder Woman post, writing, “TV folklore has it that before the Wonder Woman show with Linda Carter aired the show was originally written and (legend has it) that out there on the magic of youtube there's a pilot as a comedy of a young wonder woman living with her cantankerous mother in a retirement village in Florida. Think Golden Girls, but without the two other chicks, and Bea Arthur's way younger... and has superpowers... not to say that Bea Arthur doesn't have superpowers... I'm sure she did. Anyway, thanks for writing about the female superheroes. She taught us young girls a lot about life. Like if we want to be taken seriously, we should walk around in a strapless bathing suit. An American theme inspired strapless bathing suit!”
I also saw a bunch of references (on Twitter and elsewhere) to this great PBS doc on Wonder Woman and superheroes.
Irene Martyniuk shares these thoughts on Iron Man: “When I was working on a paper on Afghanistan at the movies, you suggested I look at Iron Man, and that has turned out to be a gift that has gone on giving. Iron Man, as you suggested, complicates the already complicated Tony Stark story. I was completely ignorant of the Tony Stark-Iron Man history and still am, for the most part, but placing him in Afghanistan and having him selling arms to the US, right at the beginning of the movie, immediately creates a weird situation (remember, he demonstrates The Jericho--an incredibly destructive mix of mortar and missile). Stark then becomes Iron Man after being kidnapped and finally discovers that his partner is selling their weapons to our enemy in Afghanistan. But wait--it's not the Taliban. It's the Ten Rings. A blond, happy reporter tells us in the film that ‘they are on a mission’ but what that mission is exactly is never explained and while Stark eventually wipes them out--he destroys a small part of Afghanistan in doing so and even lets the villagers become bloodthirsty vigilantes. Now skip ahead a year or two. I brought all of this up in my Afghanistan class and we watched Iron Man together. Then, as one of their mid-term questions, they had to imagine that Hamid Karzai was delayed in JFK and noticed at least three of the people or characters we had read and/or talked about that half semester and had asked his security team to bring the people over. My students had to imagine the conversations. Not surprisingly, nearly every student chose Tony Stark as one of their three for the exam. But what made me real proud were the nuances of their imagined conversations. In nearly every answer, Stark is his usual slick self, and he tries to charm Karzai. And Karzai is a little tempted by the firepower Stark represents as Iron Man. But Karzai then admonishes Stark, usually quite sharply, as an elder would in Afghanistan, over the destruction he has caused. Most of the students pointed out how the real Karzai frequently deplores the NATO/ISAF civilian death toll, without mentioning the damage and deaths caused by the Taliban, and they had him do the the same for Stark. By the end, Stark is flummoxed. All of his snappy comebacks have dried up, and Karzai moves on to the next character. My students also dealt with the issue of the Ten Rings and the Taliban. I had posited that the scriptwriters had not wanted to name the Taliban since, within the plot, Stark industries was selling arms to them, and this would clearly imply that American-made weapons were being used against American soldiers. Also, I explained, both in the paper and to the students, how films that use American military props--being bases, materiel, etc.--must be cleared by the military, and perhaps they objected. However, my students were much more knowledgeable about Tony Stark/Iron Man and explained that within the comic book series, Stark had been taken captive in Vietnam and held by a group called the Ten Rings. I don't think it totally destroyed my argument--they could have updated the name--but it does show the mythology of the comic book story (and the students looked it up during class to verify it). I miss that class.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

Friday, April 19, 2013

April 19, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: The Punisher

[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
On the character whose ambiguous heroism illustrates a fundamental American duality.
Each of the comic book heroes I’ve written about this week is complex in one way or another, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re all, at the end of the day, heroes (outside of those individual storylines where Superman goes bad or the like, which only reinforce the character’s general goodness in contrast). But the same cannot necessarily be said of Marvel’s The Punisher (Frank Castle); since his 1974 debut in The Amazing Spider-Man, as a man out to kill Spider-Man both because he believes him to be a criminal and because he seemingly enjoys killing, The Punisher has blurred the lines between hero and villain as much as any comic book character. On the one hand, Castle first became The Punisher after his wife and children were massacred and the killers escaped justice (until he delivered it to them); on the other hand, he has continued to kill ever since, a vigilante often skirting and breaking the law while at the same time claiming to honor and uphold it.
There are salient late 20th century contexts for that kind of ambiguity, perhaps especially in the rise of vigilante characters such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, men who take the law into their own hands in understandable yet brutal and extreme ways. Pushing that particular envelope even further are characters such as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle (spoiler alert for that clip) or Michael Douglas’s Bill Foster, men whose motivations are even more murky and disturbed, although the objects of their violence seem often to deserve their fates just as much as did Clint’s and Bronson’s. It’s no doubt in part because of that sense of rightness in their actions, despite the obvious wrongness in much of their characters, that all four men became pop culture heroes in various ways; but such vigilante heroism is also an enduring American ideal. Even many of the Revolution’s heroes, from the Boston Tea Partiers to Paul Revere to Nathan Hale, operated outside of and in opposition to the law; and they’re far from alone in our popular iconography.
Perhaps the most famous pop cultural embrace of vigilante-ism, however, is also a far more explicitly controversial one, and a reminder of the other side to these American histories. In the final sequence in D.W. Griffith’s technically pioneering and thematically disgusting The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Ku Klux Klan rides triumphantly to the rescue of the film’s protagonists, defying any and all official institutions (who are all in the film’s mythos in league with the villains) in the process; the scene’s celebration of the KKK’s lawlessness would be echoed two decades later by a distinctly similar scene in Gone with the Wind (both the novel and the film). These cultural texts remind us that the vigilante activities of the KKK, like those of lynch mobs, were for many decades in our national narratives treated just like those of The Punisher et al—as a disturbing and perhaps tragic but also understandable and even necessary response to societal ills. Makes Frank Castle that much more ambiguous, doesn’t it?
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So what do you think? Responses to any of the week’s heroes? Other comic characters you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April 18, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Black Panther

[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
On Black Powers, super- and political.
In the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, legendary comics duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created their newest character, the Black Panther. Other black characters had appeared in various supporting roles in American comics, but the Panther—really a super-powered African prince named T’challa from the fictional nation of Wakanda—is generally considered the first mainstream black superhero. If so, Lee and Kirby, and their successors in writing and illustrating the character, have done that pioneering idea full credit, creating a character with as rich a backstory and mythos, home “world,” familial and romantic life, and powers and personality as any of his peers in the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Marvel Universe overall.
From what I can tell it was coincidental that the Panther’s debut was followed three months later by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s October 1966 creation of the Black Panther Party (or at least there seem to be no explicit references to any connection between the two Panthers); both might have been responding to the well-known African American World War II tank battalion, among other potential origins for the name. But in any case the timing reflects the complexity of the American racial, social, cultural, and political world into which Lee and Kirby’s character arrived, both within the comic (as an African immigrant to the United States; or perhaps simply a visitor, as he often returns to his home country in the comics) and as a cultural presence. This was a character who was literally the most powerful individual within his African homeland, coming to a world in which the very concept of Black Power (also newly coined in 1966) was a revolutionary one.
So when Stokely Carmichael led those SNCC marchers in the cry of “We want Black Power!,” would the release (just a month later) of the debut Black Panther story have satisfied them? Obviously a comic book superhero is not the equivalent of meaningful political or social change—but the Panther did represent a significant cultural shift, or at least an addition to the mainstream cultural landscape, and such cultural developments have their own value to be sure. Moreover, it’s possible to argue that such cultural shifts can produce social or political ones—as, for example, a generation of comic fans grows up rooting for a super-powered, socially responsible, Ku Klux Klan-fighting African prince, the concept of Black Power moves from an abstraction or a potential division to, ideally, a shared and obvious part of our world. Sounds pretty super-heroic to me.
Last hero tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this character? Other comics you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

April 17, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Wonder Woman

[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
On the ambiguous creation, evolution, and cultural images of our first female superhero.
Wonder Woman was created only a few years after Superman and Batman, debuting in the December 1941 issue of All Star Comics; but this superhero was hugely distinct from those and other contemporaries, and not just in the basic and obvious fact of her gender. For one thing, her creator, William Moulton Marston, was a Harvard-educated psychologist who was hired first as an educational consultant for comics companies before he developed the idea for this new character. And the circumstances behind that creation were particularly complex: in terms of the inspiration for the character, who was based partly on Marston’s impressive wife Elizabeth (who also, according to one article, suggested the character’s gender in the first place) and partly on a young student with whom the couple were supposedly having a polygamous relationship; and in terms of Marston’s stated goals, which included both giving young women a sense of their “force, strength, and power” but also molding them into adults as “tender, submissive, [and] peace-loving as good women are.”
As Wonder Woman evolved over the next few decades, she similarly shifted between more and less progressive and traditional roles and characteristics. For example ,when she joined the Justice Society of America, the first comics super-group (created to help America fight Hitler and the Axis forces in World War II), she did so in large part to serve as the group’s secretary (I suppose a super-group needs a super-secretary); similarly, in a late 1960s storyline she retired the Wonder Woman identity in order to run a mod clothing store as Diana Prince (although she still fought crime on the side). Yet despite such connections to entirely or somewhat traditional women’s worlds, Wonder Woman’s mythology was similar to Superman’s—she came to our society from a distinct and superhuman race and world, in her case as an Amazonian princess, and so her human identity as Diana was the creation and mask—making her at her core a larger-than-life and particularly strong and powerful woman. And I would argue that the 1970s Lynda Carter TV show engaged with both sides of this coin: using skimpy costumes to capitalize on Carter’s physical appearance; yet consistently portraying her strength and toughness against any and all adversaries.
So how do we analyze this character and her social and cultural images and meanings? A historicizing answer doesn’t seem sufficient, since in each era and stage Wonder Woman has had both progressive and traditional, boundary-pushing and stereotypical, sides. Given Marston’s own double-sided quote about what he hoped to convey to young female audiences, a reader-response analysis would also be problematic—that is, while we could argue that readers would emphasize one or another aspect of the character, depending on their own perspectives or goals, Marston seemed to be arguing that both ends of the spectrum were part of his explicit purposes. In both cases, and perhaps in any analysis, the baseline truth seems to be that Wonder Woman has been a multi-layered and contradictory character, one who can reinforce some of our culture’s attitudes and identities while at the same time taking them in distinctly new and radical directions. Not much that’s more AmericanStudies than that combination!
Next hero tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this character? Other comics you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April 16, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Superman and Batman

[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
On two distinct AmericanStudies contrasts between our two most enduring superheroes.
A great deal of ink—actual and electronic—has already been spilled about the identities, not only individual but also as a matched pair, of Superman and Batman, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. Heck, there have even been multiple special comic book series dedicated to the pair’s crime-fighting adventures. Having been created at almost exactly the same time—Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939—and having evolved, through comics and TV shows and films and reboots, in eerily parallel ways, the two caped crusaders stand as the yin and yang at the top of the superhero pyramid (us Spiderman fans might protest, but, well, we’d be wrong). How much more can an AmericanStudier say about these two?
For one thing, I think more could be made of the immigrant vs. insider dynamic at play in the two characters’ backstories—and, more exactly, how each seemingly flips that backstory on its head in his present, mythic status. Superman, the immigrant from a foreign land (well, planet) who has to change his name in order to assimilate to his adopted family and the United States, ends up becoming the classic all-American symbol and success story, beloved of his countrymen. Batman, the son of privileged and powerful parents, born on third base holding a silver spoon, ends up rejecting much of that identity in favor of the shadows and dark corners, feared far more than he’s admired by his fellow Gothamites. Damned if I know what to make of those shifts exactly, but at the very least they reflect, individually and even more as a tandem, that superheroic myth-making is just as partially related to original identities and communities as is the self-made man narrative.
For another thing, I’d say that the two characters illustrate two very different models of American heroism, images that contradict each other yet have often seemed to coexist in particular moments and stories. In our narratives of the Union’s victory in the Civil War, for example, we tend to give similar credit to Abraham Lincoln, the larger-than-life superman giving the era its moral gravitas; and to Ulysses S. Grant, the down-and-dirty fighter willing to use whatever tactics seemed necessary to get the job done. The two are difficult to reconcile—at the same moment that Lincoln was delivering his unifying Second Inaugural, envisioning reunion between the regions, Grant was pursuing the final stages of his “total war” strategy, devastating the Confederacy on every front. Yet it’s also possible to see them as necessarily complementary—perhaps Superman’s idealism needs Batman’s realism to get the job done; and yet without the idealism the realism would perhaps seem too dirty or debased. The yin and yang of our superheroic myths.
Next hero tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these characters? Other comics you’d highlight?

Monday, April 15, 2013

April 15, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Dick Tracy

[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
Comparing, contrasting, and contextualizing the comics’ most enduring detective.
In 1931, Chester Gould debuted his comic strip Dick Tracy; Gould go on to write and illustrate Tracy’s hard-hitting adventures for forty-six years, until his retirement in 1977, and the series has continued with new authors and teams in the decades since, making it one of America’s longest-running comics. Tracy’s popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, from his outrageous adversaries to his decades-long courtship of Tess Trueheart; but I would argue that it is the character’s strikingly hard-boiled perspective and philosophy that particularly define his appeal. As the Library of American Comics site linked above notes, “I’m going to shoot first and investigate later” (apparently an actual line) sums up Tracy’s crime-fighting style quite concisely and effectively. In the era of Al Capone (the model for Big Boy, Tracy’s first opponent), such a perspective surely spoke to the American psyche.
For further proof for that collective perspective, and for an important artistic context for Gould’s creation, I’d point to the first two novels published by seminal mystery writer Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (1929) and The Dain Curse (1929). Hammett’s narrator and protagonist in these debut novels (and in other later stories) is a detective so hard-boiled he doesn’t have a name; known only as The Continental Op (short for operative), this detective weathers (and contributes to) the titular bloody harvests and family curses without blinking an eye, seemingly unaffected and unchanged by even the worst of the world around him (a characteristic that is of course even more pronounced for a multi-decade character such as Tracy). While they had various influential ancestors (including Western lawmen and heroes such as the title character of Owen Wister’s The Virginian), it’s fair to say that between them Tracy and the Op really inaugurated the hard-boiled detective as a popular American character and type.
Neither Tracy nor the Op changed much over time; but less than a year after publishing The Dain Curse, Hammett would release his third novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), and interestingly revise the hard-boiled detective type in the process. Falcon’s protagonist, Sam Spade, is certainly just as hard-boiled as either the Op and Tracy; indeed, without spoiling the novel’s climax I’ll note that Spade takes an action there that’s perhaps a bit harder still than any taken by those men. Yet unlike the Op, Sam doesn’t narrate his novel, and Hammett’s third-person narrator is able to develop a more nuanced perspective on his detective as a result. The novel’s opening paragraph and initial description of Spade, for example, concludes with the sentence, “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” a line that it’s impossible to imagine appearing in a Dick Tracy strip. Such details don’t necessarily make Spade any less of a hero, ultimately, than his counterparts—but they make clear that the Dick Tracy type was already, in its own moment of creation, being complicated as well as popularized.
Next heroes tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these characters? Other comics you’d highlight?