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Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 31, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Binx’s Aunt Emily

[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On the character who embodies and yet also complicates a sexist stereotype.
When I was planning this week’s series, and thinking about what common characters and phrases came to mind for both “Uncle” and “Aunt,” one of the first that I thought of was “maiden aunt.” As that definition suggests, the phrase typically means more than simply an unmarried female relative—it has generally connoted a naïve lack of experience, a life that has been sheltered and cut off from the world’s realities. That connotation comes with a long history, one that in an AmericanStudies vein I would connect for example to the 19th century concept of the “New England spinster.” It’s also overtly sexist on multiple levels, not only in relying on and amplifying such carticatured images of older women, but in the concurrent implication that it is only through marriage that such women could gain knowledge and life experience, and that an unmarried life entails the absence of such elements and growth.
Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning debut novel The Moviegoer (1961) is set in neither the 19th century nor New England—its titular protagonist, John “Binx” Bolling, is a Korean War veteran living in his native New Orleans, working as a stockbroker but spending most of his time watching movies, having affairs with secretaries, and contemplating the meaning of his unsatisfactory life. But one of the novel’s handful of significant characters seems like an embodiment of this maiden aunt stereotype—Binx’s Aunt Emily (actually his great aunt, but he calls her “Aunt Emily”), known to most characters in the novel as Miss Emily, is an elderly, unmarried woman who lives alone in a large New Orleans mansion, and who has throughout Binx’s life “seemed to have all the time in the world and [has been] willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about” (something Binx thought about her at the age of 8 and that apparently has remained true ever since). Moreover, she seems poised to pass the mantle of this role onto Binx’s cousin Kate, an isolated, depressed, and even suicidal young woman who has become Emily’s protégé.
Percy’s novel has been accused of sexism, and there’s no question that both Emily and Kate are stereotypical female characters in various ways, and Binx’s secretary conquests even more so. Yet on the other hand, Binx himself is deeply and fundamentally flawed, a character whose seemingly happy and successful façade masks deep-seated insecurities and absences—and it is Emily herself who sees through Binx’s surface and to those flaws most clearly and potently (a vision she likewise passes on to Kate). Which is to say, if there is one thing Aunt Emily is not is it naïve or inexperienced, lacking knowledge of the world—she is instead by far the novel’s most wise character (one based in part, it seems, on Percy’s late father), and one who brings that wisdom to bear in practical and blunt terms with her great-nephew. It’s far from coincidental that Binx ends the novel engaged to marry Kate (they’re distant enough cousins)—while not a perfectly happy ending nor a guarantee of a bright future for either Binx or Kate, the marriage is at the very least the clearest way he can carry forward the legacy of his Aunt Emily.
Last uncle/aunt tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this aunt? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

July 30, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Uncle Buck

[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On images and narratives of lovable but troubled plus-size American funny men.
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the first Hollywood mega-stars—his 1921 $1 million contract with Paramount, signed after more than a decade of starring roles in early silent films, helped set the standard for such deals, and led to a number of directorial roles for Arbuckle in the next few years. But soon after Arbuckle was featured instead in one of the first Hollywood mega-scandals, the trio of trials for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe at one of Arbuckle’s notorious house parties—although Arbuckle was acquitted in the third trial (after hung juries in the first two), his repututation and career never recovered. When he died of a heart attack in 1933, only 46 years old, he cemented his legacy as a troubled larger-than-life comic performer, a narrative that has come to be associated with a number of other actors as well, including John Belushi and Chris Farley.
Although Canadian comic John Candy also died far too young, of a heart attack at the age of 43, I don’t think he’s generally connected to that overarching narrative—Candy’s life and career seem to have generally been free of the different kinds of shadows that plagued Arbuckle, Belushi, and Farley; Candy’s weight, while of course a lifelong health concern that certainly contributed to his death, is not to my mind in the same category as the troubles confronted by those other funny men. Yet on the other hand, many of Candy’s most famous characters were themselves troubled, lovable but frustratingly erratic goofballs whose lives never quite seemed in order: Dewey “Ox” Oxberger in Stripes (1981), Freddie Bauer in Splash (1984), Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Harry Crumb in Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989), and, one of the most troubled and emblematic of all, the title character in Uncle Buck (1989).
Buck Russell is an unemployed gambler with a far more successful and stable brother; when Buck finds himself watching his nieces and nephew for a few days, he of course rises to the challenge, but does so in his own unique and chaotic, crazy uncle kind of ways (such as imprisoning the older niece’s philandering boyfriend in the trunk of his car). At the film’s conclusion, Buck has helped the family in multiple ways, but it seems clear that he himself will return to his own, largely unchanged troubled life. It’s a strangely abrupt and frustratingly unsatisying ending, particularly if we have come to care about the character at all (which is the film’s intent), but I would argue that it links Buck’s story quite nicely to these overarching American narratives of lovable but troubled funny men—all of whom, like Buck, we came to care about and embrace; and all of whose stories and lives likewise ended unsatisfyingly. The film is a comedy, and the lives were, too often, tragedies—but there’s a complex thematic connection between them all nonetheless.
Next uncle/aunt tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this uncle? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Aunt Jemima

[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On the worst and best sides to the caricatured cook.
Before she was purchased and trademarked by Quaker Oats, for whom she still graces syrup bottles and other products into this 21st century moment, Aunt Jemima was brought to stereotypical life in minstrel songs and shows. African American vaudeville performer Billy Kersands apparently created the character in his 1875 song “Old Aunt Jemima,” and by the end of the next decade she had been incorporated into multiple traveling minstrel shows. The history is a bit fuzzy, but apparently Chris Rutt, a newspaper editor and the co-owner of the Pearl Milling Company, saw the character performed in one such show in 1889—perhaps played by Pete Baker, a white actor who performed Aunt Jemima in cross-dressed blackface—and made her the icon for his company’s new pancake mix; when Pearl Milling was sold to R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1890, Aunt Jemima went with it.
R.T. Davis was apparently far more ambitious than Pearl Milling, and the company made Aunt Jemima the centerpiece of its marketing plans: hiring ex-slave Nancy Green to play the character full-time, and employing her to operate a pancake cooking booth at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The move paid off, as the Aunt Jemima exhibit and its “world’s largest flour barrel” became one of the exposition’s most talked-about features, and the character and brand were launched into the position of national fame that they still hold. Given the exposition’s striking lack of actual, contemporary African Americans—a problem highlighted in the publication The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, edited by Ida B. Wells—this prominent role for Aunt Jemima was troubling to say the least. As essayist and activist Anna Julia Cooper argued in an 1893 speech, the character exemplified a longstanding and ongoing tradition of national embrace and exploitation of such Southern myths of slavery and race, one hugely detrimental to African Americans.
I wouldn’t disagree with Cooper at all, and find the continued use and popularity of Aunt Jemima to be equally troubling and in need of critique. Yet I would also argue that our histories of the character need to engage more fully with the life and work of Nancy Green, who played Jemima for more than 20 years and became the first of a number of African American women who built successful careers out of such performances. The same complex questions I raised in a post on Hattie McDaniel could be asked of these women, who on the one hand participated in the creation and dissemination of stereotypical caricatures, and on the other achieved significant success and quite possibly paved the way for future generations as a result. And for Green in particular, as an ex-slave trying to find her way in the period that has been called the nadir of post-war African American life, the opportunity to play Aunt Jemima—a character created, again, by another successful post-bellum African American performer—cannot be dismissed as purely or simply exploitation. As with so many American stories and histories, then, there are multiple sides to Aunt Jemima—and as with those pancakes she made famous, we need to make sure to pay attention to both sides.
Next uncle/aunt tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this aunt? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Uncle Remus

[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]

On the racist caricature and myth that’s also something more.
There are few ways in which I would claim to have had any opportunities that my boys don’t have—the opposite is far more frequently the case, which of course is precisely as it should be—but one complex and interesting such opportunity is that I had the chance to see the Walt Disney film Song of the South (1946) as a kid. I confess to not knowing the details of where or when I saw it with my Dad, but I’m sure it was in a theatrical re-release, as the film has to my knowledge never been released on home video in any format. I don’t think that’s any great loss to America’s youth or film cultures, but on the other hand as you would expect I’m not a big fan of suppressing or censoring any American text; certainly I would hope that if and when any kids do get to see it, they have the benefit (as I did, and as my boys would) of a parent who’s able to frame some of the contexts (of race, region, and slavery) into which the film fits, but it does also contain some funny and impressive (and I believe largely non-controversial) animated versions of Brer Rabbit stories, and a few (perhaps more controversial, but not any worse than Peter Pan’s “What Makes the RedMan Red?”) catchy tunes.
Song was based pretty closely on Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1881), the first in the series of books that late 19th-century Southern journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris wrote about that title character and his “legends of the old plantation.” I’ve only read the first two books in that series, Uncle and its 1883 sequel Nights with Uncle Remus—I wrote about them, in an extended version of what I’ll say in this post, as part of the “race question” question in my dissertation/first book—and certainly in some key ways found them as objectionable as the worst elements of Song of the South and as (I believe) the images conjured up by the name Uncle Remus in our collective consciousness. Uncle’s version of that title character embodies in multiple ways some of the most ideologically and socially disgusting characteristics of the plantation tradition: a former slave who wishes only to return to and recapture the world of slavery, who (in the Reconstruction-focused “Sayings” portion of the book in particular) full-throatedly rejects the potential advancements of the Reconstruction era (freedom, education, opportunities outside of the plantation world, etc.), and who seeks to influence his young post-bellum white audience through these beliefs. And through one particularly unhappy choice Nights extends and amplifies those qualities, moving the setting and characters back to the antebellum era, and thus making clear the mythologized reasons for Remus’s preference for the world of slavery and all of its benefits for himself, his wife, and his fellow slaves.
I don’t want to elide any of those aspects of Harris’s books, but I would nonetheless also note some of the much more complex and even progressive qualities of Harris’s work in these texts. In my book’s analyses I linked those qualities to the interconnected concepts of “voice” and “dialogue” on at least three levels: the ways in which Uncle Remus’s “Brer Rabbit” stories themselves create a set of voices that seem, at least times, quite clearly allegorical for some of the less happy and idyllic sides to the world of slavery; the ways in which both books, and especially Nights, create an evolving and at times quite powerful and inspiring dialogue between Remus and the young white boy who is his audience and (I would argue) student; and the presence in Nights of three other slave voices in Remus’s cabin, each with his or her own identity and perspective (including on slavery itself), creating an exemplary, powerfully African American dialogic space from which the boy likewise can and does learn. Obviously those are interpretative points, and it’s possible to read Harris’s books quite differently—but at the least that’d mean reading them for yourself and figuring out where you come down on these questions.
Next uncle/aunt tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this uncle? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

July 26-27, 2014: Crowd-sourced Autobiographers

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ve highlighted a handful of such American autobiographers and analyzed what their texts and identities reveal. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and life writing interests of fellow AmericanStudiers—share your thoughts and other texts you’d highlight in comments, please!]
First, an apology: I didn’t intend to focus on five male autobiographers in the week’s posts, but it did work out that way. So here are links to five prior posts featuring equally impressive and inspiring autobiographical works by women: Mary Rowlandson; Sarah Winnemucca; Jane Addams; Dorothy Day; and Gloria Anzaldúa.
Following up Wednesday’s post on William Apess, Laura Mielke writes, “Amen! Apess will always be my hero.”
Following up Friday’s post on Carlos Bulosan, Nancy Caronia highlights another Depression-era story, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, “an autobiographical novel about the construction industry at the beginning of the twentieth century and how laborers were taken advantage of. It's a true novel of the proletariat, and heart wrenching in its construction of how unfairly Italians were treated. And a real up close look at child labor, immigrant labor, cultural assimilation.” She adds, “There is also Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880 to 1943, which reveals the way in which Italians were writing (in Italian and English) about their arrival and lives in the United States. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but from what I've heard, it is quite an achievement and contextualizes IA culture in a more expansive and inclusive manner.” And she highlights two other recent anthologies: “the new volume by co-editors Joseph Sciorra and Edi Giunta, Embroidered Stories, and Simone Cinotto's The Italian American Table and Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities.”
For other autobiographers and texts, Siobhan Senier shares Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast.
Thaddeus Codger highlights “George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, and a thousand more!”
Jana Tigchelaar mentions “Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass—my students are always so receptive to those.” And she adds, “I also teach Rowlandson's captivity narrative, Franklin, and Woolman's Journal. Would like to expand to teach more.”
Ann Bane and Paul Coleman likewise highlight Douglass as a must-read autobio—a choice that Paul calls “cliché, perhaps, but with good reason.”
Jennifer Berg shares Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, noting that “she led a very neat and non-traditional life, and MAN can she write.”
Andy Cornick highlights Claude Brown’s autobiographical novel Manchild in the Promised Land.
Kate Smith goes with Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, for its “intersection of running, writing, and life.”
Chris Blickman is “reading Nelson Mandela’s amazing Long Walk to Freedom right now.”
Michael Giannasca notes that “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me.”
Jeff Renye highlights Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks.
Rob LeBlanc shares Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1, and Philip Berrigan’s Widen the Prison Gates.
Tim McCaffrey goes with Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, quoting David Halberstam: “A book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact it is by no means a sports book.”
Patricia Ringle Vandever shares Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.
Sarah Sadowski calls Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings “one of my all-time favorite reads.”
Rebecca Bednarz highlights Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.
And AnneMarie Donahue shares Alice Sebold’s Lucky.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Friday, July 25, 2014

July 25, 2014: American Autobiographers: Carlos Bulosan

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On an author and book that will introduce you to under-narrated American histories—and grab your heart in the process.
One of my bigger pet peeves in the dominant narratives of American history is the notion that multi-national and –ethnic immigration has been a relatively recent phenomenon, or at least that it has been most pronounced in the last few decades. It’s true that the 1965 Immigration Act, the first immigration law that opened up rather than closed down immigration for various groups and nationalities, led directly to certain significant waves, especially those from war-torn Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. And it is also true that certain ethnic groups represented particularly sizeable percentages of the immigrants in the last decades of the 20th century: Asian Americans, again, and also Hispanic and West Indian immigrants. None of those facts are insignificant, and our understanding of America in the 1970s and 80s (for example) needs to include them in a prominent place. But my issue is with the very different notion that America prior to 1965 didn’t include immigrants from these nations (an idea advanced in its most overt form, for example, by Pat Buchanan in an editorial after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, which he blamed on the shooter’s status as the son of South Korean immigrants).
Multicultural historian Ronald Takaki notes this belief in the introduction to his magisterial A Different Mirror, recounting a conversation when a cab-driver asks him how long he has been in the US, and he has to reply that his family has been here for over 100 years. While the most obvious and widespread problem with this belief is that it makes it much easier to define members of these groups as less American than others, I would argue that another very significant downside is that it enables us to more easily forget or ignore the stories of earlier such immigrants; that group would include Yung Wing, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton , Sui Sin Far, and my focus for today, the Filipino-American novelist, poet, and labor activist Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan came to the United States in 1930 at the age of 17 (or so, his birthdate is a bit fuzzy), and only lived another 26 years, but in that time he worked literally hundreds of different jobs up and down the West Coast, agitated on behalf of migrant and impoverished laborers and citizens during and after the Depression, published various poems and short stories (and wrote many others that remained unpublished upon his far too early death), and wrote the autobiographical, complex, and deeply moving novel, America is in the Heart (1946).
For the most part the book—which is certainly very autobiographical but apparently includes many fictionalized characters, hence my designation of it as a novel (in the vein of something like On the Road or The Bell-Jar)—paints an incredibly bleak picture of its multiple, interconnected worlds: of migrant laborers; of the lower and working classes in the Depression; and of Filipino-American immigrants. In the first two focal points, and especially in its tone, which mixes bleak psychological realism with strident social criticism, Bulosan’s book certainly echoes (or at least parallels, since it is difficult to know if Bulosan had read the earlier work) and importantly complements The Grapes of Wrath. But despite that tone, its ultimate trajectory is surprisingly and powerfully hopeful—that’s true partly because of the opening chapters, which are set in Bulosan’s native Philippines and make it much more difficult to see the book’s America as an entirely bleak place; but mostly because of the evocative concluding chapter, where Bulosan develops at length his title’s argument for the continuing and defining existence of a more ideal America, in the very hearts of all those seemingly least advantaged Americans on whom his book has focused. The idea might sound clichéd, but all I can say—and the echo of Reading Rainbow is conscious—is “Read the book”; it works, and works beautifully.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

July 24, 2014: American Autobiographers: Nat Love

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the autobiography that captures both the myths and realities of the American frontier.
For those scholars who like to identify and define certain dominant American narratives—a group that, it will surprise no reader of this blog, would include a certain AmericanStudier—the Western frontier presents a particularly challenging topic. On the one hand, no one could dispute that many of our most mythologized, iconic, and heroic national figures are Western in origin; but on the other hand, what do those figures symbolize? Do they represent the carving out of a path for American “civilization” as it moved west (Daniel Boone) or an attempt to escape that path (Natty Bumppo)? Did they take the law into their own hands (outlaws like Billy the Kid) or maintain law and order in a wild society (marshals like Wyatt Earp)? Were they cowboys and railroad men, doing the dangerous but somewhat corporate work of settling the frontier? Or Indians and bandits, existing outside of, and perhaps (as the kids’ game implies) in opposition to, those types?
The answer, of course, is yes, our frontier myths encompass all of those roles and identities and many others as well. After all, of the many ways in which we could argue that the frontier exemplifies America (an argument that AmericanStudiers as diverse as Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Alexis de Tocqueville have all made), to my mind the most convincing is in its thoroughly cross-cultural community, the ways in which every prominent Western event and site and place were constituted out of at least a couple different cultures and identities, peoples and perspectives. Many of those cross-cultural contacts were far from ideal, violent clashes and conflicts between the army and Native American tribes, Irish and Chinese rail workers, California squatters and Mexican landowners, and many other variations. Yet while such violent encounters have understandably been the focal point of many of the recent revisions of frontier history—just as the violence of the Wild West was a focal point for many of the original stories of the region—these cross-cultural and combinatory Western communities could also produce unique and impressive American identities, lives and stories that embody the best possibilities of such a hybrid setting. And at the top of that list would have to be Nat Love (1854-1921).
Much of what we know of Love we have learned from the man himself, courtesy of his engaging and mythologizing autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907). That book’s subtitle is over forty words long and yet still manages only to highlight some of the diverse worlds and identities through which Love moved in the course of his very Western and very American life: from his birth in slavery to dual frontier careers as a cowboy on the cattle ranges and a prize-winning rodeo competitor known as “Deadwood Dick.” The subtitle doesn’t even get to Love’s final iteration as a Pullman conductor, returning to the West where he had made his name and fortune as a buttoned-up representative and spokesman (quite literally, as this section of the narrative reads at times like an advertisement) for the technology and comfort of the new railway lines. These hugely diverse stages and worlds can make the narrative feel scattershot in tone and focus, and Love similarly divided in perspective, but that’s precisely what makes the book and the man so emblematic of the frontier—this is a man who was born a slave and who still experienced frequent racism in his Pullman work, but who also became one of the period’s most celebrated rodeo performers and a frontier legend; a man who worked as a cowboy alongside peers from every culture and community in the west, went to work for one of the Gilded Age’s most successful corporations, and closes his book addressing eastern audiences who have likely never been further west than the Mississippi.
There’s no way to boil that life and identity down to a single type or narrative; his subtitle couldn’t even boil it all down to forty words. Many of the frontier’s cross-cultural experiences were, again, not nearly as successful as Love’s, but that too is central to the point—a narrative of the frontier, like a narrative of America, would need to include both Love and Little Big Horn, and everything and everybody in between and alongside. “Cowboys and Indians,” that is, can and must mean both mythic confrontations and the possibility that the “and” does indeed symbolize connection and community.
Last autobiographer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 23, 2014: American Autobiographers: William Apess

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On an American voice I’m very thankful we have the opportunity to hear.
To my mind, one of the most fundamental American voices that has been unfortunately lost, or at least severely limited, in our public conversations over the last couple of decades is that of the progressive and socially critical preacher. Some of the most significant religious voices and perspectives in American life, from John Woolman and Jonathan Edwards all the way up to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., have used their deep spirituality and knowledge of scripture to, as the saying goes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to challenge the status quo and advance their own visions of the socially radical ideas that are at the heart of the New Testament and Christ’s teachings. It can be difficult, in this era of megachurches on the one hand (with their seeming perfection of televangelist practices and goals) and fundamentalist opposition to gay marriage on the other (with its cooption of Christian beliefs for deeply intolerant ends), to remember in fact just how radical and counter-culture religious voices in America have often been.
No American preacher fits that description better than William Apess. Born to mixed-race parents and into extreme poverty in the last years of the 18th century, Apess’s bio reads like a hyperbolic mashup of Early Republic and Native American issues: he lived (as he narrates it, at least) in the woods near Colrain, Massachusetts until he was five; the next decade or so spent as an indentured servant to various families in the area; enlisting in a New York militia at the age of 16 and fighting in the War of 1812; battling alcoholism throughout that time, and eventually finding hope in both marriage and his baptism and later ordination as an itinerant Methodist preacher during the period that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening; publishing both his own autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829, the first published autobiography by a Native author) and the conversion narratives of “Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” (1833); helping instigate and lead the peaceful Native American protest known as the Mashpee Revolt (1833), against state and national land and governance policies; becoming increasingly radical and cynical, culminating in his controversial speech and pamphlet Eulogy on King Philip (1836); and descending after that point into a brief final period of obscurity, alcoholism, and poverty, ending with his 1841 death in New York City. Each of those stages and experiences can open up its own complex window into, again, a whole range of local, ethnic, and national issues and identities in the period, making Apess one of the most rich subjects of study of all those American voices rediscovered in the last couple decades of scholarly work.
But if I had to boil that hugely full and complex life and work down to one text, it would have to be the pseudo-sermon “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” a work that Apess appended, almost as an afterthought, to the “Five Christian Indians” collection. The piece’s first sentence alone is I believe sufficient to introduce its striking combination of orality (Apess could and usually did write perfectly grammatical sentences, but doesn’t feel the need to do so consistently in this piece, and all I can say is that it works), strident and impassioned tone, and deeply radical and leveling religious themes: “Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are travelling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same, and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances, but will judge righteousness.” Damn straight. Later, Apess hits upon maybe the single most convincing religious rebuttal to racial prejudice ever constructed: “If black or red skins, or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God, it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal—for he has made fifteen colored people to one white, and placed them here upon this earth.” Say Amen, somebody, as my personal favorite radical revivalist preacher, Bruce Springsteen, has been known to put it.
What Apess does in those moments, and throughout this amazing, provocative, and powerful piece, is exactly what his title promises, and what all of these radical preachers have done so successfully in their own ways: holding a mirror up to the most hypocritical and horrific American attitudes and realities, comparing those attitudes and realities to the spiritual values that so many Americans have professed, and demanding of their audiences that they begin to take responsibility for what they see and what they say and what they do. We could use a few more such voices, I believe, and should be very thankful for the ones we’ve got.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014: American Autobiographers: Olaudah Equiano

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the controversial autobiography that should be required reading whatever its genre.
Fifteen years after the publication of John Woolman’s journal, the ex-slave turned British sailor, hairdresser, French horn player, and abolitionist (among his many other roles) Olaudah Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Equiano’s book was an international bestseller and has remained famous and significant as the first published autobiography by an African American (although that category, like any, is complicated when it comes to Equiano’s identity), but in recent years elements of its authenticity have been challenged. Scholar Vincent Carretta has unearthed evidence that suggests that Equiano may have been born in the Carolinas, and thus that the narrative’s African-set opening chapters were fabrications, created to enhance Equiano’s credibility as both an ex-slave and an abolitionist. The evidence is very ambiguous and open to continued debate, but certainly Carretta’s work has complicated any easy categorization of Equiano’s book as autobiography.
I dedicated a chapter of my second book to Equiano’s narrative, and addressed this controversy at length there. I made a couple of central points about the book’s opening images of Africa: that whatever their factual authenticity, they reveal a great deal about late 18th century images of Africa, and its relationship to the multiple other places (America, the Caribbean, England, the world of transatlantic trade) through which Equiano moved; and that Equiano’s choice to define himself, from his book’s title on, as “the African,” whether purely autobiographical or more voluntary, is an important one that can tell us a lot about constructions and complications of identity in his era, in those different settings and communities, and in how we have perceived and read him and his book in the centuries since. None of that means that the archival work of scholars like Carretta isn’t important, or that trying to learn the factual details of Equiano’s life doesn’t impact how we read and analyze his narrative—but to my mind, autobiographical writing is always more about contexts and communities, multiple and constructed identities and audiences, than the life story of one individual; and Equiano’s has much to tell us on those levels in any case.
Of the many such lessons Equiano’s book has to offer, the many reasons why I believe his narrative should be just as famous and foundational for American audiences as Ben Franklin’s, I would highlight in particular his striking evolutions, that huge range of stages and roles to which I alluded in my opening description above. In his time in the Caribbean alone Equiano was both a slave and an overseer, a sailor and a captain, a laborer and a merchant, among other shifts. Those changes, like the opportunity to purchase his own freedom that enabled most of them, were far from the norm for African slaves, and it would be important not to see Equiano’s life or book as broadly representative of that (or any) community. If we did make Equiano’s narrative required American reading, that is, we would want to pair it with a text like Frederick Douglass’ or Harriet Jacobs’, one that better captures the realities and histories of slavery. But on the other hand, just as Douglass and Jacobs moved through multiple stages and identities in their inspiring lives, Equiano’s amazingly varied life exemplifies such evolutions, and his narrative thus presents a unique and vital way for us to understand the constructions, revisions, and stories that have always comprised identity in America.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 21, 2014: American Autobiographers: John Woolman

[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the autobiographer who traced his own wanderings, and so can help guide us on our own.
Maybe this will change as I get older and realize just how much kids today don’t get it and how much they could use a wise older voice and perspective (not unlike my own, mayhaps) to show them the light, but for now, I have to admit that many of the works of American literature most overtly intended to inspire change, to convince an audience of the benefits of following the author’s revolutionary philosophical ideas, leave me pretty cold. From 19th century/American Renaissance classics like Emerson’s “Nature” (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854) to Beat manifestos like Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)—and each of those four texts is far more complex than I’m giving them credit for here, but all I believe are meant to leave the reader convinced that the author has, if not all of the answers, at least some good starting points toward them—my response has largely been the same: I see the power and brilliance, but I’m ultimately more annoyed than impressed.
If I had to boil the reasons for my annoyance down to one idea, it’d be that all those texts seem to have been written with the answers already in mind, with the author already comfortable in his philosophical position and hoping both to narrate how he got there and convince us to do the same. That might seem to be a necessary condition for the writing of any work, much less a philosophical or persuasive one, yet I think it elides just how much any individual’s perspective and philosophy, like his or her identity and experiences, continue to evolve and (ideally) grow and deepen. For that reason, I find the Emerson who emerges in his journals to be infinitely more interesting and complex and attractive (as a thinker, as a writer, as an inspiration) than the one from whom we hear in the speeches and essays. And likewise, my vote for the most powerful and convincing work of American philosophy would be another journal, and one only published posthumously and so not at all written with immediate publication and persuasion among its goals: the journal of John Woolman (1720-1772), the itinerant Quaker minister who traveled through America for much of the 18th century, developing an impassioned and evolving perspective on religion and faith, community and charity, anti-slavery and Indian rights, pacifism and social activism, and many other complex questions through those journeys and the many people and worlds he encountered on them.
Woolman’s journal is eloquent and beautifully written, a literary masterpiece that has been in print since prior to the Revolution (it was published in 1774, two years after Woolman’s death) and so can lay claim to being one of our most foundational texts. Yet despite that stylistic and formal impressiveness it has an intimate quality, a rawness of perspective, that makes clear just how closely it reflects the open mind and heart of its author. From its first line—“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth of my age, I begin this work”—Woolman stresses both that intimacy and the text’s fluidity, its ability to grow and develop alongside him and his identity (and indeed he would write it throughout his final decade and a half of life). And in the book’s twelfth and final chapter, written over the months before Woolman’s death—and in fact in that chapter’s final paragraphs, likely composed just days before that tragic event, with it perhaps in sight—Woolman writes, “I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.” I don’t know that any single sentence has ever better captured life’s journey than that one—and I do know that few American texts offer a better guide to moving through life than does Woolman’s journal.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

July 19-20, 2014: American Beaches: Jamie Hirami’s Guest Post on Venice Beach

[With beach season underway in earnest, in this week’s series I’ve AmericanStudied some famous beaches, leading up to this Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
[Jamie Hirami is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the amazing Penn State Harrisburg program, where she’s writing a dissertation on Venice Beach which promises to break significantly new ground in American material culture and cultural studies. This Guest Post is just a glimpse of what’s to come!]
Freak Beach.  Muscle Beach.  Silicon Beach.  Coney Island of the Pacific.  Slum by the Sea.  Venice Beach, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, goes by many monikers.  None of those nicknames reference the original plan that founder Abbot Kinney, heir to a tobacco fortune, envisioned in 1898 when he bought out his real estate partners for the southern portion land that also originally encompassed Santa Monica: a resplendent, middle-class seaside resort and town, which would cater to its clientele with Chautauqua’s and other elements of high culture.  Ultimately, mass and popular cultures shaped its direction as an amusement destination while the counter cultures of the mid-twentieth century influenced its modern reputation as bohemian community. 

Modeled after Venice, Italy, Kinney transformed the marshy land into a series of navigable canals along which, early visitors could buy real estate for single-family home development. Venice-of-America officially opened on July 4, 1905 to a crowd of about 40,000 people.  Kinney’s grand cultural intentions culminated in a 3,400 seat auditorium built for educational lectures and cultural performances, which closed after one season.  Instead, visitors flocked to the pier, bathhouse, beach and other amusements.  In fact, rides and games proved to be so much more popular than the Chautauqua experience, that in January 1906, he opened the hugely popular midway plaisance, which included exhibits and freak shows from the world’s fairs in Portland and St. Louis.

By the time Kinney died in October 1920, Venice’s original luster had greatly diminished.  The canals did not drain properly, creating murky and dirty waterways, and the national trend for boardwalk amusements, in general, faded.  Years of opposition by the growing permanent residents and clergy to boxing matches, alcohol, dancing, and more sordid amusements was capped by a hugely destructive fire that caused over a $1 million in damages.  In 1925, the City of Los Angeles annexed Venice, filling its famous canals in 1929 to make room for roads. 

Over the next forty years, Venice remained an outwardly run-down version of its former self, but in its place, a vibrant counter-culture fomented cultural growth.  It became a Southern California hotbed for the Beats; a hippie commune during the Sixties; and it embraced transients, hustlers, artists, and performers. 
Today, Venice’s increasingly gentrified neighborhoods have put homeless and homeowners, hustlers and shop-owners, and low-income versus high-income residents at odds, but it still maintains a fierce stance against the mainstream.  In 2007, Abbot Kinney Blvd. (the main commercial thoroughfare) opened its first chain store—Pinkberry—causing an uproar among residents and local shop owners who petitioned people to boycott the chain.  Three years later, it closed because it was underperforming.  More importantly, Venice still maintains ties to its popular culture beginnings with numerous sidewalk performers, a freak show along the boardwalk, and a voyeuristic outdoor gym among other diversions.  Venice Beach, through its varied history, remains, at heart, a destination that caters to popular amusements.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]

Friday, July 18, 2014

July 18, 2014: American Beaches: Baywatch

[With beach season underway in earnest, a series AmericanStudying some famous beaches. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
On why those beautiful beach bodies are also a body of evidence.
Late last year, I humorously but also earnestly noted that to a dedicated AmericanStudier, any text, even Baywatch, is a possible site of complex analysis. I stand by that possibility, and will momentarily offer proof of same. But before I do, it’s important to foreground the basic but crucial reason for Baywatch’s existence and popularity, one succinctly highlighted by Joey and Chandler: pretty people running in slow-motion in bathing suits. While I plan to make a bit more of the show and its contexts and meanings than that, it’d be just plain cray-cray to pretend that either the show’s intent or its audience didn’t focus very fully on those beautiful bodies. Moreover, such an appeal was nothing new or unique—while the beach setting differentiated Baywatch a bit, I would argue that most prime-time soap operas have similarly depended on the attractiveness of their casts to keep their audiences watching.
If Baywatch was partly a prime-time soap opera, however, it would also be possible to define the show’s genre differently: in relationship to both the police and medical dramas that were beginning to dominate the TV landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Baywatch debuted in 1989). After all, the show’s plotlines typically included both rescues and crimes; while the lifeguards often dealt with romantic and interpersonal drama as well, so too did the docs of ER or the cops of Miami Vice (to name two of the era’s many entries in these genres). Seen in this light, and particularly when compared to the period’s police dramas, Baywatch was relatively progressive in the gender balance of its protagonists—compared to another California show, CHiPs, for example, which similarly featured pretty people solving promised land problems but which focused almost entirely on male protagonists. Yes, the women of  Baywatch were beautiful and dressed skimpily—but the same could be said of the men, and both genders were equally heroic as well.
The creators of Baywatch tried to make the cop show parallel overt with the ill-fated detective spinoff Baywatch Nights, about which the less said the better (even AmericanStudiers have their limits). But the problem with BN wasn’t just its awfulness (Baywatch itself wasn’t exactly The Wire, after all), it was that it missed a crucial element to the original show’s success: the beach. And no, I’m not talking about the bathing suits. I would argue that the most prominent 1970s and 1980s cultural images of the beach were Jaws and its many sequels and imitators, a set of images that made it seem increasingly less safe to go back in the water. And then along came David Hasselhoff, Pam Anderson, and company, all determined to take back the beaches and shift our cultural images to something far more pleasant and attractive than Bruce munching on tourists. Whatever you think of the show, is there any doubt that they succeeded, forever inserting themselves and their slow-mo running into our cultural narratives of the beach?
Special guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?