My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, December 1, 2022

December 1, 2022: Video Game Studying: Doom

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On two strikingly communal and collaborative sides to the influential first-person shooter.

I could write a post about id Software’s Doom (1993) very similar to yesterday’s on Pac-Man, as Doom was nearly as innovative and influential in its own era and genre as the little yellow dude was in his. (To cite one such aspect that I won’t be focusing on in this post: the game was originally distributed through shareware, making it a very direct predecessor to internet gaming.) Indeed, having spent more hours than I care to admit during my first year of college playing Doom with and against (on which more in a moment) other residents of my dorm, I would be even more equipped (armed, one might say) to write overall about the game’s staggering popularity and effects. But I wanted to take a slightly different approach for today’s post, and to focus in more closely on two distinct but interconnected aspects of Doom, both of which in their own ways reflect the game’s striking communal and collaborative elements—and both of which have been frustratingly linked to critiques of the game and its first-person shooter ilk for inspiring (whether implicitly or even explicitly) acts of violence in the real world.

The first such communal aspect was a main reason why I spent so much time Doom-ing during my freshman year: the multiplayer mode known as “deathmatch.” The ostensible goal of Doom is to defeat level after level of swarming monsters using your array of weapons, and the game offered a “cooperative” (or “co-op”) multiplayer mode in which 2-4 players (linked through a shared network, such as, I dunno, in a college first-year dorm) could team up to fight those monsters as a unit. But that was only one of the game’s two multiplayer modes, and the other was the deathmatch, in which 2-4 players instead compete against one another, becoming their respective targets instead of the monsters. The deathmatch gameplay option became so popular that various corporations had to ban Doom entirely in order to keep their employees from devoting all their time to playing against each other. In my experience, Doom deathmatches were a great way to connect with my fellow dormmates and become better friends with this important academic community; but for critics, the chance to kill fellow humans (rather than unrealistic monsters) brought video game violence home to the real world in dangerous ways—a perspective that was seemingly validated when the 1999 Columbine High School shooters were revealed to have been avid Doom players.

That tenuous link between one of the first prominent school shootings and Doom was mythically amplified by a connection to the other communal and collaborative aspect of the game I want to highlight: the ability for players to create and play in their own custom levels, known as WAD files (“Where’s All the Data?”). The potential for such customization was a striking innovation, and became one of the most popular and shared aspects of the game for many players. But this aspect also became unhappily associated with Columbine, as one of the two shooters, Eric Harris, had apparently designed a number of WADs of his own (which came to be known as “Harris levels”). However, one of the key elements to how that fact was reported turned out to be entirely false: reports suggested that Harris had designed a level based on Columbine High and had used it to practice for the school shooting; but that was quite simply not the case. Here we can see quite specifically and frustratingly the way that violent video games in general, and this innovative collaborative side to Doom in particular, can be inaccurately turned into fodder for attacks on the games and their negative societal effects. Like any work of art, Doom can and should be analyzed and critiqued; but neither the WADs nor Doom overall are what gave us Columbine.

Last game tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

November 30, 2022: Video Game Studying: Pac-Man

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On three of the many ways Namco’s smash 1980 launch helped changed the game(s).

1)      Character: Arcade and video games had certainly diversified in the decade or so since the release of yesterday’s subject Pong, with the biggest hits in the years before Pac Man arrived space shooters like Space Invaders and Asteroids. But one thing that no game had quite featured until the little yellow dude was a recognizable and marketable main character, one who could become the mascot and (literal) face of the game and franchise. That focus allowed the game to include another innovation: cutscenes in between levels, brief mini-movies featuring that main character in wacky adventures. It allowed for hugely successful sequels like 1981’s Ms. Pac-Man that would not have been possible without a distinct character at the heart of the franchise. And it paved the way for many of the most popular video games and franchises of all time: the Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, Kirby, the Angry Birds, and more.

2)      Artificial Intelligence: One of the game’s vital coding innovations was that the enemies—the four cute but deadly “ghosts” (Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde, natch) who pursue Pac-Man as he tries to eat all those delicious dots and fruits—were programmed with artificial intelligence and could respond to the player’s moves. I don’t imagine it was the most sophisticated such AI—Ex Machina this wasn’t, that is—but nonetheless, even the idea that every time you played Pac-Man, you could have an entirely different experience depending on your own choices and what effects they had on the ghosts’ behaviors was a profoundly new element to video gaming. I talked in Monday’s post about the flexible and interactive qualities to video games; of course that was somewhat true even with the Pong’s of the world, but adding artificial intelligence in this way (and at any level of complexity) really began to illustrate the possibilities for that kind of player-game interactivity.

3)      Winnability: That artificial intelligence and its promises of constantly evolving gameplay certainly contribute to a sense of Pac-Man as a particularly replayable arcade and video game, one that grossed over $1 billion in quarters (!) in its first year of release. But another important element was Pac-Man’s seeming yet elusive sense of winnabililty; as Atari’s Chris Crawford put it in an 1982 interview with Byte magazine, “An important trait of any game is the illusion of winnability ... The most successful game in this respect is Pac-Man, which appears winnable to most players, yet is never quite winnable.” Indeed, Pac-Man was designed to have no final level, although apparently if a player beats 255 consecutive levels, a bizarrely split-screen and supposedly unbeatable 256th final level does appear. Even that strange, glitch-like detail, however, would only add to that sense of potential yet also ephemeral winnability, making playing Pac-Man again and again that much more appealing. Which, for nearly forty years now, is just what gamers have done.

Next game tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

November 29, 2022: Video Game Studying: Pong

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On two lesser-known and telling moments in the history of the first blockbuster arcade game.

While I’m sure video game historians would point to many moments and games as possible origin points for the genre, some as that hyperlinked timeline indicates from as early as the 1940s, there’s no doubt that high on any such list would be Atari’s 1972 arcade release Pong. Debuting on this date 50 years ago, Pong would quickly become a national and worldwide phenomenon, helping establish the viability of video game arcades in commercial spaces (and then eventually in spaces all their own), contributing (if in a complex way on which more in a moment) to the successful launch of the first home gaming system (the Magnavox Odyssey), spawning numerous sequels and copycat games, and generally changing the landscape of not only gaming and technology, but also entertainment, social spaces and interactions, and childhood. If that seems like an awful lot to attribute to one video game, well, that was the remarkable power of those two white paddles and that frustratingly bouncy little white ball. Indeed, I would say that only Star Wars measures up to Pong when it comes to 1970s popular culture landmarks that have influenced the next half-century of American and human life.

That overall influence is pretty well-known, but in researching this post I learned about a couple of a lesser-known and equally telling moments in Pong’s early history. For one thing, the game was the subject of a 1974 lawsuit from Magnavox (and its parent company Sanders Associates). In May 1972 Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell had attended a Magnavox event and seen a demonstration of the company’s own table tennis game, and he himself later admitted that seeing the game prompted him to ask his own employee, engineer Allan Alcorn, to make a table tennis game for Atari; as Bushnell put it, “The fact is that I absolutely did see the Odyssey game and I didn't think it was very clever.” Despite protesting innocence from any patent infringement, Bushnell and Atari decided to settle out of court with Magnavox, with the case concluding in June 1976. I can’t really weigh in on the merits of the lawsuit; the two games do look pretty similar to me, but I suppose all table tennis games, especially in that very early era of game design, would likely seem similar. What I can say, however, is that the subsequent history of video games has been defined again and again by competing games and systems, a trend very much foreshadowed by Pong’s controversial relationship to Magnavox table tennis.

The other telling moment is far less weighty than a lawsuit, but just as socially significant I’d say. In describing why and how Pong became such an arcade hit, Bushnell would later note, “It was very common to have a girl with a quarter in hand pull a guy off a bar stool and say, 'I'd like to play Pong and there's nobody to play.' It was a way you could play games, you were sitting shoulder to shoulder, you could talk, you could laugh, you could challenge each other ... As you became better friends, you could put down your beer and hug. You could put your arm around the person. You could play left-handed if you so desired. In fact, there are a lot of people who have come up to me over the years and said, 'I met my wife playing Pong,' and that's kind of a nice thing to have achieved.” This is of course another important side to the flexible and interactive qualities of video games that I highlighted in yesterday’s post—while of course many games can be played solo (not Pong, though, at least not in its first arcade iteration—it was two-player only), there is a fundamentally social element to gaming, and perhaps especially to arcade gaming. The art is often created, that is, through a communal experience, and one that, as Bushnell’s quote illustrates, links to other communal experiences like social interactions, friendship, and romantic relationships. All part of what Pong helped initiate as well!

Next game tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

Monday, November 28, 2022

November 28, 2022: Video Game Studying: Grand Theft Auto

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

Forgive me for focusing this post less on GTA itself and more on broader gaming topics. But that seemed like a good way to begin this week’s series, and plus I’ve never played any of the GTA games (and welcome comments from those who have). So to wit, here are three aspects of video games that a focus on GTA can help us discuss:

1)      Their Effects: The elephant in the room when it comes to GTA, and really all violent video games for that matter, is the question of their potential effects on (especially) impressionable young players. From what I can tell, the first GTA featured mostly just cartoonish car violence; it was with the series’ fifth game in particular that the stakes were significantly raised, with players for example having the ability to rob and kill prostitutes after sleeping with them (and, it seems, being rewarded by the game for choosing to do so). I don’t believe that any form of art (which games on, on which more in a moment) can or should be directly correlated with any particular effects on their audiences; it’s nowhere near that simple. But at the same time, it’s worth noting that unlike most other art forms, video games ask their audiences to make many of the choices themselves, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that choosing to kill a woman is the same as watching a character do so in a film (for example). So while I don’t believe a game like GTA makes its players more violent, it does at times ask them to act violently in troubling ways that are worth recognizing and critiquing.

2)      They’re Art: Perhaps it’s now widely accepted that video games are an art form; certainly disciplines like Fitchburg State’s groundbreaking Game Design Major have that idea as a key starting point. But I’m not sure that the communal conversations about games tend to incorporate that definition, as it seems to me that they are still often seen more as a combination of toys (and thus more appropriate for children than any other age bracket) and distractions (and thus taken less seriously than other cultural forms and media). Obviously any definition of art is open to interpretation and argument, so I can’t claim with absolute authority that video games are an art form (although I believe very strongly that they are). But I will say that narratives which treat games more dismissively lead directly to less thoughtful and helpful engagements with questions like the ones I raised in point one, to perceptions of games as (for example) simply delivery systems for violence rather than an art form featuring artistic subgenres that include violence as a key element (just as action and horror films do, to name two other such art forms).

3)      They’re Flexible: If we do see video games as an art form (as I do), what differentiates them from most other such forms (other than Choose Your Own Adventure books, I suppose!) is that they are interactive, depending on the choices of their audience members (who of course are far more than just audience members) for how their stories and thus their art are ultimately created. I know that’s a well-known point, but I have a specific and surprising GTA anecdote related to it. When my sons were relatively young, a babysitter took them to his house and let them play one of the GTA games on his gaming system. I was initially horrified when they told me this, but then they described their game play at length, which involved all sorts of driving craziness and silliness (driving into swimming pools, trying to drive off bridges onto moving trains, etc.) and relatedly only self-directed violence (seeing what would happen if they climbed to the top of a tall crane and jumped off, for example). Not exactly the highest form of art, perhaps, but far different from a game focused on killing others. In this case, at least, the game’s flexibility had allowed my sons to make it their own in a silly but also, I would argue, very significant way.

Next game tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

Friday, November 25, 2022

November 25, 2022: Thanks-givings: Young Voters

[For this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to highlight briefly but thankfully a handful of the things for which I’m thankful here in late 2022. Add yours for a truly thank-full crowd-sourced weekend post, all!]

I can’t really say this any better than Will Bunch did in his Philadelphia Inquirer column, but I’ll second that emotion very fully: the youngest cohort of voters came out en masse for the 2022 midterms, voted for some of the most important issues facing them and their world, and genuinely helped preserve American democracy. You best believe this AmericanStudier is hugely thankful for them, and for all the young people who continue to give me hope for the future despite, well, all the things.  

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time, with feeling: what are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 24, 2022

November 24, 2022: Thanks-givings: Fantasy Football

[For this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to highlight briefly but thankfully a handful of the things for which I’m thankful here in late 2022. Add yours for a truly thank-full crowd-sourced weekend post, all!]

No, not for me—I know my obsessive self too well, and know that if I started down the fantasy football road I’d soon enough be spending every free moment checking out the differentials between that one third-string running back and that other third-string running back. It’s my sons who have become fantasy football fanatics over the last few seasons, and while I will occasionally offer my advice about their latest trade offer or waiver wire signing, they know infinitely more than I do about the whole process and pretty much all NFL players as a result. And that last part is what I’m so thankful for—while I certainly enjoyed the stage of their lives where they were learning a lot about sports from watching and talking about it with me, I enjoy significantly more still the chance to watch with them not only as full equal partners in sports fandom, but as perspectives from whom I consistently learn more than they do from me. I’ve loved watching sports with them for their whole lives, but this latest stage is my favorite to date, and I’m very thankful for how much fantasy football has to do with that!

Next Thanks-giving tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

November 23, 2022: Thanks-givings: Andor and Willow

[For this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to highlight briefly but thankfully a handful of the things for which I’m thankful here in late 2022. Add yours for a truly thank-full crowd-sourced weekend post, all!]

So I gotta start this Thanks-giving post by noting that it’s a bit of a weird one, for two reasons: more obviously, because the new Willow streaming series doesn’t drop for another week; and more subtly, because my sons and I have been too busy this Fall to watch more than the first couple episodes of the new Andor streaming series. I’m pretty darn sure we will love both when we are able to watch them in full, but of course I can’t say definitively that I’m thankful for shows we haven’t yet watched. Or can I? Turns out I can, because—and yes, I know full well all the critiques of Disney and giant corporate cultural overlords and oversaturated existing properties and etc. etc. etc., and I would echo many of those concerns in many cases—I am profoundly grateful to live in a time when some of the cultural works and worlds that most defined my childhood continue to expand and evolve, and I can share those expansions and evolutions with my sons. There most definitely is too much of a good thing, and at times recently the Star Wars universe has begun to move in that direction for me—but it ain’t there yet, and for now I remain profoundly thankful for both these shows and what they represent.

Next Thanks-giving tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

November 22, 2022: Thanks-givings: Purple Carrot

[For this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to highlight briefly but thankfully a handful of the things for which I’m thankful here in late 2022. Add yours for a truly thank-full crowd-sourced weekend post, all!]

I haven’t written much in this space about my 2018 decision to become a vegetarian (most of the time; I lapse on occasion), and the reason I suppose is that it was and remains deeply personal—not just in the sense of it being about me and my health (although yes), but also and especially because I was inspired to do so by my sons (who were vegetarian first and have been more consistently committed to it than I). I’d never proselytize others to do the same, although my sons are more willing and very able to make that case (my younger recently wrote an amazing 10th grade English persuasive essay on the topic). But I will tell you this: if you’re like I used to be, you probably think that meat substitutes and alternatives leave a lot to be desired. I thought that right up until the start of COVID lockdown, when I decided to use a free trial of Purple Carrot’s vegan delivery service. It didn’t take long for me to realize how wrong I had been about vegan food; it didn’t take much after that for my older son to join me in cooking the PC meals, a tradition we have continued to this day and that’s become one of my very favorite things in my whole life to date. So for many, many reasons, I’m hugely thankful for Purple Carrot!

Next Thanks-giving tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What are you thankful for?

Monday, November 21, 2022

November 21, 2022: Thanks-givings: Bruce’s Soul

[For this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to highlight briefly but thankfully a handful of the things for which I’m thankful here in late 2022. Add yours for a truly thank-full crowd-sourced weekend post, all!]

Look, obviously any new Springsteen album is an occasion for serious gratitude around these parts. But I’ll admit that when I first heard his new record, Only the Strong Survive, would be all covers, I was a bit bummed, since his songwriting is one of my favorite things about him (a strikingly long and very competitive list). But when he talked in that hyperlinked video about why he wanted to focus on his voice, and why he chose the soul classics from the 60s, 70s, and 80s as the vehicle through which to do so, it made a lot of sense. When I heard his stunningly beautiful and moving cover of The Commodores’ “Night Shift,” it made even more sense. I think that’s still my favorite of the album’s 15 songs, but there too there’s plenty of competition. I needed this album in November 2022, and I dare say we all do. That’s most definitely something to be thankful for!

Next Thanks-giving tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What are you thankful for?

Saturday, November 19, 2022

November 19-20, 2022: Lily Hart’s Guest Post on Voices of the River

[Lily Hart is the Digital Manager at the nonprofit Confluence and coordinator of the Voices of the River Journal. She is also a first year PhD student at the University of British Columbia.]


[Voices of The River Journal cover and interior art, both by Tommy Greeyes.]

Last night, I celebrated the launch of a new journal focused on the history, living culture, and ecology of the Columbia River system, through Indigenous perspectives. Voices of the River is an accessible journal of stories, research papers, poetry, and art designed to elevate Indigenous perspectives in our understanding of our region—the greater Columbia River system—and our nation. As the Digital Content Manager at the publisher, the nonprofit Confluence, I have had the honor of acting as the managing editor for this publication. 

 

Confluence is a community supported nonprofit that connects people to the history, living cultures, and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices. Wework through five completed art landscapes, educational programs, and public gatherings in collaboration with northwest tribes, communities, and the celebrated artist Maya Lin. You can find more about us and our history here. This project is an extension of our work in public gatherings, education programs in schools, and our Digital Library, which features interviews, documentary shorts, photo galleries, and research papers on various subjects exclusively from Indigenous perspectives. 

 

This 30-page journal is supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It features articles by the authors pictured above from left to right: Rachel Cushman (Chinook) and Chance White Eyes (Oneida), Sean Smith (Chinook), and Emily Washines (Yakama). The Journal also includes works by Carlee Wilson (Chinook), poetry by Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock), and first-person narratives from Linda Meanus (Warm Springs/Celilo) and Confluence Founding Board Chair Antone Minthorn (CTUIR), with accompanying art by Tommy Greyeyes (Navajo). For me, it has been such a pleasure to work with the authors of all these pieces, as well as the graphic artist Tommy Greyeyes.

Confluence recognizes that the idea of “peer review” is part of the Western academy, which as it has been shown time and again, is part of upholding imperial goals.1 While some of the articles (research intensive) in the Confluence Journal, are technically categorized as “peer reviewed” for the purpose of qualifying as a academic journal we attempt  a decolonial approach to the process.. 

In this spirit, Confluence aimed for the process of what is called “peer review” to be a positive one, aimed at helping the author improve the article and helping the editor make edits, rather than subject an author to many many rounds of revisions or act as a gate-keeping mechanism. One of the ways I saw this emerge was through the thoughtful engagement authors had with each other’s articles. We held meetings with all the authors together, so they could give each other feedback and build community along the way.  I just sat back and watched them engage with each other—thoughtfully and creatively. 

 

The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Simpson writes of “Aanjigone,” the Nishnaabe concept “that one needs to be very, very careful with making judgments and with the act of criticism. Aanjigone is a concept that promotes the framing of Nishnaabeg values and ethics in the positive.”2 This idea is what frames Simpson’s approach to writing and academia. 

 

Simpson writes that:

 

 “Critique and revelation cannot in and of themselves create the kinds of magnificent change our people are looking for...To me it means we need to be careful with our criticism. We should not blindly follow the academy's love affair with criticism, ripping apart other Indigenous academics' work-with whom we probably have more in common than virtually any other academics in the world. Instead, we should highlight the positive within each other's work, and save our criticism for the forces that continually try to rip us apart.”3

 

On Friday, November 18th, the journal officially launched with a party at the Oregon Historical Society. We held a panel with four of the authors—Rachel Cushman, Chance White Eyes, Sean Smith and Emily Washines—mingled, and sold journals. The journal can be purchased here. This was the first time some of us met in person, and a moving culmination of almost a year's work.



[Top: Left to right: Confluence Digital Content Manager Lily Hart, author Emily Washines (Yakama), author Sean Smith (Chinook), poet Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock),,author Rachel Cushman (Chinook), author Chance White Eyes (Oneida), and Confluence Executive Director Colin Fogarty. Bottom: Launch party at the Oregon Historical Society. Attendees joined for food, mingling, and a panel featuring Rachel Cushman, Chance White Eyes, Sean Smith, Emily Washines, and moderated by Lily Hart.]


1. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies:Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, UK: Zed Books, 2012).


2. Leanne Simpson. Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. (Winnipeg, MB: Arbeiter Ring Pub., 2011), 54-55.

3. Ibid.

[Holiday series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think?]

Friday, November 18, 2022

November 18, 2022: Public Art: Murals

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

I could tell you all about the 50 stunning murals highlighted in this Parade piece featuring an exemplary mural from every state. Or you could go click through the gallery yourself, and be inspired by the individual artists, communal visions, collective memories, and aesthetic power of this most social form of public art. You know what I’m gonna recommend!

Also, on Twitter Leslie Frost reminds me of the amazing New Deal post office murals!

Newest Guest Post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

Thursday, November 17, 2022

November 17, 2022: Public Art: The Harriet Wilson Statue

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On how a wonderful recent statue corrects a wrong and makes the case for right (and writing).

I previously wrote about Fern Cunningham’s Harriet Wilson Memorial Sculpture in this post on southern New Hampshire’s phenomenal Black Heritage Trail. Check it out and then come on back for some additional thoughts, please.

Welcome back! Some of the most persistent historical myths I’ve encountered among students up here in Massachusetts/New England (and I have to believe they’re nationwide) is that the state, region, and even the entire North were less racist (if not overtly anti-racist), more anti-slavery, generally more enlightened on such issues than their Southern counterparts. There are all sorts of ways to challenge those myths, including remembering histories like those of Revolutionary-era enslaved people and the 1830s near-lynching of William Lloyd Garrison on the streets of Boston (or, y’know, the late 20th centuries histories of virulent Bostonian racism). But the stories of individuals can often resonate more intimately and deeply than those of broader historical communities and issues, and there are few individuals whose story more powerfully reveals the layers of racism and prejudice in early 19th century New England than that of Harriet Wilson. This striking statue, like the Harriet Wilson Project that funded it, can help American audiences, including but not at all limited to students, connect to and learn those individual and collective stories.

While Harriet Wilson was certainly victimized by those attitudes and issues, however, she was most definitely not a victim. That was true of her inspiring life, and it was even more true of the most impressive part of that life: her writing and publication of her autobiographical novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859). That groundbreaking book is one of those that every American student should be exposed to, and an element of her story that the statue foregrounds powerfully through both the key detail of the book in Wilson’s hand (which I think purposefully parallels the child she holds with her other hand—these were her two creations and legacies) and the single word description of Wilson as “Author” on the base. I know it’s the Lit Prof bias in me showing, but I’d say we need more public art of American authors, and there’s no existing statue that I’d point to as a better model than the Harriet Wilson Memorial Sculpture.

Last public art tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

November 16, 2022: Public Art: Two Midwestern Statues

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On the inspiring messages and missing histories of two linked statues.

Sculptor Marshall Fredericks (1908-1998) lived for much of the 20th century, and for much of the century’s second half was the nation’s preeminent creator of public statues and monuments. He created his first such public sculpture, the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain on Detroit’s Belle Isle, in the 1930s, but it was after his time in the Air Force during World War II that Fredericks completed the majority of his numerous, prominent public projects. These include Christ on the Cross at the Indian River (Michigan) Catholic Shrine; The Freedom of the Human Spirit for the 1964 New York World’s Fair (now relocated to near the US Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe Stadium); the Man and the Expanding Universe Fountain at the US State Department’s Washington, DC headquarters; and the two Midwestern statues on which I’ll focus for the remainder of this post: the Spirit of Detroit at the city’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Center; and the Cleveland War Memorial Fountain: Peace Arising from the Flames of War (also known as the Fountain of Eternal Life).

Both of these beautiful public statues/memorials feature inspiring, spiritual messages that clearly reflect Fredericks’ perspective and voice. Spirit of Detroit, dedicated in 1958, features a plaque that reads, “The artist expresses the concept that God, through the spirit of man is manifested in the family, the noblest human relationship”; in his left and right hands the figure holds symbolic representations of God and the human family, respectively. The War Memorial Fountain, dedicated six years later in 1964, features a central figure escaping the flames of war and reaching for peace, and surrounds him with (per Fredericks’ own statements about the statue) symbolic representations of an interconnected world: a bronze sphere that (like the sphere in the left hand of Spirit) reflects spiritual beliefs and stories; and four granite carvings that embody the world’s civilizations. These overarching messages and ideas would be important and inspiring in any setting, but certainly especially were in the depths of the Cold War, the strife and divisions of the 1960s, and other historical and cultural contexts of that post-war period.

There’s nothing wrong with public memorials and art that present such overarching messages and themes, such universe images and ideals. Yet at the same time, my favorite public statues/memorials, like the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, link broader themes to specific, local histories and conversations, and on that level I’m not sure these two Fredericks statues quite succeed. The War Memorial did include on its framing rim a tribute to the 4000 Greater Clevelanders who gave their lives in WWII and the Korean War (and has since been expanded to include casualties and veterans of other wars as well), which is a definite and important local connection. But outside of those names (and of course every city sent its own soldiers to those and other wars), I would say that both statues could be moved to other sites or cities and have precisely the same messages and themes, largely unaffected by the different contexts. For a war memorial perhaps that’s fitting, as war implicates and affects us all, and task of remembering and mourning is a truly shared one. But for a statue named Spirit of Detroit, I would argue that at least a bit more specific engagement with that particular city’s histories and stories, community and identity, would be a positive addition, one that could complement the inspiring overarching messages and present viewers with a sense of this unique American space at the same time.

Next public art tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

November 15, 2022: Public Art: The Shaw Memorial

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On a historically, culturally, and symbolically crucial statue and monument.

Thanks to Glory, one of the best American historical films of all time, I don’t think there’s too much danger of us leaving the 54th Massachusetts, Robert Gould Shaw, or African American Civil War soldiers out of our national narratives. It’s true that we largely had done so up until the film’s 1989 release, and certainly also true that it’s not necessarily ideal to get our history straight from a Hollywood film (although having read the letters of both Shaw and an African American soldier from the regiment, I can say that this particular film does a very good job of representing that history with complexity and sophistication while still going for the big emotional notes for sure; I look forward to Kevin Levin’s forthcoming Shaw bio for a lot more such contexts). But nonetheless, on a blog devoted first and foremost to American things that we should better remember, the 54th and Shaw probably don’t need as much of a spot as many of my topics.

Yet as impressive and inspiring as the events surrounding the 54th were—from the formation of the regiment to its climactic moments at South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, and everywhere in between—I would argue that some of the most inspiring moments to come out of those events happened between twenty and thirty years later, with the development and creation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Boston Common memorial to the regiment and to Shaw (begun in 1884 and unveiled in 1897). The inspiration, then and now, came first from Shaw’s family, who rejected Saint-Gaudens’ initial plans for an equestrian statue of just Shaw and argued instead (echoing Shaw’s father’s insistence that his son remain buried near Fort Wagner with his African American soldiers, rather than being exhumed and moved to a Boston-area cemetery) for a statue that included regimental members as well as their Colonel. And it is a serious understatement to say that Saint-Gaudens ran with that inspiration; he decided to use African American models on which to base his sculptures, becoming (it seems) the first white sculptor to do so for any monument or memorial, and as a result created a memorial that is both grand and intimate, heroic and deeply human.

The first time I saw the Shaw Memorial was as part of a History and Literature seminar in my freshman year of college, and I remember both one of the professors and all of my peers arguing that in it Shaw on horseback was still privileged above (literally and figuratively) the African American soldiers. And I guess I can see that argument (which echoes in part this important book by historian Kirk Savage, perhaps the foremost American scholar of this week’s subject), although Shaw was a Colonel and would have ridden into battle on a horse, so I’d read that detail more as a part of Saint-Gaudens’ attempt at accuracy (especially given the care with which he sculpted those individual African American soldiers). But in any case, the Memorial as a whole, like the process that produced it, and like the men and moment that it captures, represents one of the very best things in our collective history and identity, the collaborative efforts of a multi-generational, multi-racial, and multi-vocal community across decades and in the face of some of the most brutal and tragic events we’ve ever witnessed.

Next public art tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

Monday, November 14, 2022

November 14, 2022: Public Art: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On two levels to why the controversial memorial is so important.

Collective memory has always been a serious issue when it comes to Vietnam veterans. As early as the late 1970s and early 1980s, that sizeable American community was seemingly being forgotten and ignored, most especially when it came to our governmental and societal unwillingness to address and help with their far too frequent struggles with issues like illness, mental health, homelessness, and more. Fictional Vietnam vet John Rambo’s moving final speech in First Blood (1982) highlights both those issues and this perception of a forgotten community very fully and powerfully. But that’s also an illustration of another layer to the collective memory problem: as pop culture texts started to push back and offer representations of Vietnam vets, they were just that, pop culture representations. Sometimes they were more thoughtful (I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen’s, shockingly), sometimes they were less so (what happened to John Rambo across that first film’s many, increasingly silly sequels, for example), but they were always cultural characters, not the lived experiences and identities of actual Vietnam vets (with occasional exceptions like Born on the 4th of July).

But in the same year that First Blood was in theaters, indeed just three weeks after that film’s October 22nd release, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled on the National Mall. Some veterans and politicians argued that the talented college student’s proposed design (which won a nationwide competition) was too depressing and/or didn’t pay sufficient tribute to the veterans, leading to the addition of Frederick Hart’s statue The Three Soldiers two years later. But I would argue precisely the opposite: I don’t know of any war memorial that pays more focused and specific tribute to soldiers themselves (rather than the broader ideas or shared myths about and behind the war in question, for example). The choice to include the names of every U.S. soldier who had been killed or gone missing in the combat, nearly 58,000 at the time (and the number has grown since), was to my mind an absolutely stunning way to focus visitors’ attention on not only that particular, tragic group, but also the more than 2.5 million U.S. servicemen and women who took part in the conflict. That is, seeing each and every one of these names likewise reminds us of all the other names, and makes it far more difficult to forget the service, sacrifices, struggles, and stories of all those veterans.

There’s another layer to that significance as well. I imagine I’ve written before in this space about one of my greatest frustrations with 21st century political rhetoric: the way the phrase “support the troops” has been coopted to mean “support our wars,” even though all too often (if not indeed inevitably) war means mostly very bad things for the troops. (This 2015 James Fallows column made that case very potently.) Far too much of the time, the answer to that from those who (like me) are generally opposed to wars has been to separate from these narratives overall, making it far more difficult for us to express any support for our troops in the process. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial represents a perfect expression of a third way—a piece of public art that, it seems to me and others, does as a “gash on the landscape” offer a critique of the war itself; and yet one that at precisely the same time expresses the moving support for all of the troops, past and present, about which I wrote in the last paragraph. If that’s true, that would make this not only our best war memorial, but one of the most important pieces of public art in our history.

Next public art tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

Saturday, November 12, 2022

November 12-13, 2022: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: My Reflections

[AmericanStudier turns 12 this week! There have been a lot of things that have kept me blogging for the last dozen years, but at the top of the list are all the ways it has connected me to others. That especially means the wonderful Guest Posts I’ve been able to share, more and more in recent years, so this week I’ve shared the 25 most recent such Guest Posts (you can find more at this Guest Posts tab). Leading up to this special post on how I see AmericanStudier here in 2022!]

In some central ways, my life is quite similar today to what it was in November 2010, just a good bit further on down the road: my sons were 4 and 3, while today they’re 16 and 15; I was starting my 6th year at Fitchburg State, while this Fall I’m beginning my 18th; I was working on book two, while right now I’m looking to find a home for book seven; and so on. But there have also been some significant changes, and none bigger than my moves into online writing and public scholarship (a decade-long process and evolution that I talked a lot about in my episode of the wonderful Drafting the Past podcast). Those moves have involved lots of different sites and spaces, with meaningful shifts in and between each of them; but there from the start, important and influential not only in beginning that process but at each and every stage since, and still right here we find AmericanStudier.

That paragraph might read like some sort of conclusion, or at least like I’m preparing to make a change. To be clear, neither of those things are true: I still love working on this blog, sharing it with y’all, and (especially, as I hope the week’s posts made clear) featuring so many other voices on it, and I don’t have any plans to stop or even decrease the quantity. Indeed, the only thing I’d say I definitively hope will happen over the next year will be something that has already begun in the last few months: a continued uptick in how many Guest Posts I’m able to share. Perhaps this is a pipe dream, but I’d love to get to a point where every weekend features a Guest Post, or at least that I have the chance to run 2-3 Guest Posts every month (as has been the case over the last few months). I don’t have too much more to say about that, other than, y’know, reach out if you want to be part of it!

When I make the case for why all scholars should consider blogging and online writing (and I’ve made that a case a lot over the last 12 years, including at length in that aforementioned podcast episode), there are all sorts of factors I point to, from keeping our scholarly work going during busy academic years to making connections and networking to finding starting points for book projects. But I don’t know that I’ve said enough what I want to say here: it’s really fun! There’s no way I’d still be doing this 12 years later if I wasn’t getting a ton of enjoyment out of it, and I sure am; it’s one of my favorite things I get to do, and that includes not just writing the posts (which now happens in batches as I’ve discussed before) but rereading and sharing them each and every day. I know our job is a job, and I’m not trying to minimize those elements of it (especially for the far too many folks in this profession who don’t have the job stability I’m so lucky to have found). But we have to be able to find pleasure in this work too, and for me, there’s no part of my career that has given me more enjoyment than public scholarly blogging. I can’t wait to see where the next dozen years take me, and I’m pretty sure AmericanStudier will be there every step of the way.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Whether you’re a brand-new reader or have been in these blogging streets for years, and most especially if you have ideas for Guest Posts, I’d love to hear from you, in comments or by email!

Friday, November 11, 2022

November 11, 2022: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts V

[AmericanStudier turns 12 this week! There have been a lot of things that have kept me blogging for the last dozen years, but at the top of the list are all the ways it has connected me to others. That especially means the wonderful Guest Posts I’ve been able to share, more and more in recent years, so this week I’ll share the 25 most recent such Guest Posts (you can find more at this Guest Posts tab). I’d love to hear your ideas for the next 25, in comments or by email!]

1)      Kent Rose’s Guest Post on How I Got to Nelson Algren

2)      Ariella Archer’s Guest Post on My Scary Thoughts: The Evolution of Three Horror Subgenres

3)      Jeff Renye’s Guest Post on “As Above, So Below”: The Desire to Believe and Forbidden Knowledge in The X-Files

4)      Joe Moser’s Guest Post on Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

5)      Akeia Benard’s Guest Post on the New Bedford Whaling Museum  

Special anniversary post this weekend,

Ben

PS. Ideas for Guest Posts of your own? You know what to do!

Thursday, November 10, 2022

November 10, 2022: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts IV

[AmericanStudier turns 12 this week! There have been a lot of things that have kept me blogging for the last dozen years, but at the top of the list are all the ways it has connected me to others. That especially means the wonderful Guest Posts I’ve been able to share, more and more in recent years, so this week I’ll share the 25 most recent such Guest Posts (you can find more at this Guest Posts tab). I’d love to hear your ideas for the next 25, in comments or by email!]

1)      Kate Jewell’s Guest Post on A Love Letter to College Radio

2)      Adam Golub’s Guest Post on Creativity and American Studies

3)      Emily Hamilton-Honey’s Hope-full Guest Post

4)      Laura Franey’s Guest Post on The Keepers

5)      Robin Field’s Guest Post on Toni Morrison & the Rape Novel

Last 5 Guest Posts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Ideas for Guest Posts of your own? You know what to do!