My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, January 31, 2022

January 31, 2022: Bill MurrayStudying: Tootsie

[To celebrate one of our strangest holidays, Groundhog Day, I’ll be AmericanStudying that film as well as four others in the long and unique career of Bill Murray. Leading up to a crowd-sourced post featuring your takes on these and other Murray classics!]

On the challenges and benefits of re-viewing complicated classics.

Although by 1982 Bill Murray had already transitioned from his breakout role on Saturday Night Live to movies and had begun to enter the comic actor A-list with films like Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), he has a relatively small supporting role in Sydney Pollack’s romantic comedy Tootsie (1982), playing Jeff Slater, a playwright and the roommate of protagonist Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman). But he has one of the film’s most famous lines (as Murray so often does; I don’t know any actor who delivers comic lines more pitch-perfectly than he has for more than four decades now), as well as one that gets at the problem I’m highlighting in this post: struggling actor Dorsey has begun cross-dressing as a woman, imaginary actress Dorothy Michaels, in order to secure a part on a daytime soap opera; he and Slater are trying to choose an outfit for a particularly important scene, and as Dorsey talks about clothes and how they do or don’t flatter his “female” body, Murray’s Slater notes, “I think we’re getting into a weird area here.”

It’s understandable that Slater would find his roommate and friend’s newfound “female” perspective to be weird, but it’s also clearly (and perhaps inevitably in a movie released 40 years ago) the case that the film overall presents Dorsey’s cross-dressing as both strange and silly (as well as driven by purely professional goals, rather than any psychological or emotional needs). The situation also leads to some casual violent homophobia that’s largely played for laughs: Charles Durning’s Les Nichols, the father of Dorsey’s soap opera co-star and eventual love interest Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), falls in love with and even proposes marriage to Dorothy; when he finds out that Dorothy was really a man, he tells Dorsey, “The only reason you’re still living is because I never kissed you.” While the film doesn’t endorse that violent homophobia by any means, it also continues to present Les as sympathetic after he expresses it; indeed, Dorsey buys him a beer shortly thereafter and it seems that the two men will be friends. All of that might make sense and work within this 1982 film, but it looks very different and far more problematic on a 2022 viewing.  

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t view Tootsie today, however, nor that there aren’t contemporary benefits to doing so (besides enjoying a successful romantic comedy, which it remains). For one thing, there are few ways to engage with historical attitudes and narratives better than seeing how they were represented in popular culture—obviously some cultural works express and endorse such blatantly hateful attitudes that it might be more destructive to engage them; but many others, like this film, simply reflect some of the problematic narratives of their era and allow us to better understand them as a result. And for another thing, almost all cultural works also include other perspectives, including surprisingly progressive ones—such as one of Tootsie’s final lines, when Dorsey apologizes to Julie by saying, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man…I just gotta learn to do it without the dress.” I’d call that a pretty thoughtful rejection of toxic masculinity, in romantic relationships and overall, and that’s a theme that’s even more important in 2022 than it was in 1982.

Next MurrayStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on other Murray films? 

Saturday, January 29, 2022

January 29-30, 2022: January 2022 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

January 3: 2022 Anniversaries: 1772 and the Revolution: A New Year’s series kicks off with three important pre-Revolutionary moments from 250 years ago.

January 4: 2022 Anniversaries: 1822 and Monrovia: The series continues with a few layers to the fraught founding of a West African settlement and nation 200 years ago.

January 5: 2022 Anniversaries: 1872 and Henry Wilson: Why becoming the Vice President was only the second most important thing Henry Wilson did 150 years ago, as the series rolls on.

January 6: 2022 Anniversaries: 1922 and “The Waste Land”: Two AmericanStudies contexts for a decidedly non-American masterpiece published 100 years ago.

January 7: 2022 Anniversaries: 1972 Films: The series concludes with the telling visions of violence in three films celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

January 8-9: 2022 Predictions: A special weekend post sharing a few predictions for the year to come in American politics, society, and solidarity!

January 10: Women in Politics: Victoria Woodhull’s Campaign: In honor of the first woman elected to the Senate, a series on women in American politics kicks off with the controversial and compelling story of the first woman to run for president.

January 11: Women in Politics: Jeannette Rankin’s Pacifism: The series continues with the historical anti-war activists who were the real wonder women.

January 12: Women in Politics: Hattie Caraway’s Elections: On the 90th anniversary of her groundbreaking election, one interesting detail from each of Caraway’s three Senate campaigns.

January 13: Women in Politics: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Flight: One of the most famous American flights and one that really should be, as the series rolls on.

January 14: Women in Politics: Shirley Chisholm’s Campaigns: The series concludes with two telling political efforts beyond Chisholm’s groundbreaking presidential campaign.

January 15-16: Crowd-sourced Women in Politics: My latest great crowd-sourced post, featuring the responses and thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!

January 17: Spring Semester Previews: Major Authors: W.E.B. Du Bois: My annual Spring semester previews kick off with three of the many Du Bois texts that speak to our current moment.

January 18: Spring Semester Previews: 19th Century Women Writers: The series continues with three of the many reasons why I’m requiring my Grad class students to purchase one book.

January 19: Spring Semester Previews: First Year Writing II: Three genres of papers that I’m excited to get and read from my First Year Writing students, as the series teaches on.

January 20: Spring Semester Previews: American Lit II: The three books I’m requiring my survey students to purchase (for the first time in a few years), and why.

January 21: Spring Semester Previews: The Short Story Online: The series concludes with three stimulating story pairings from my accelerated online course.

January 22-23: Spring Semester Previews: Two Sandlots: A brief weekend update on the book project that I’ll also be working on this Spring!

January 24: American Gangsters: The Godfather Part II: For the 75th anniversary of Al Capone’s death, a GangsterStudying series kicks off with the profoundly American layers to our greatest gangster story.

January 25: American Gangsters: Capturing Capone: The series continues with three pop culture representations of Capone on the anniversary of his death.

January 26: American Gangsters: Gangster Rap: Three telling stages in the evolution of an American musical genre, as the series rolls on.

January 27: American Gangsters: Aaron Hernandez: A tragic sports scandal and the allure and illusions of the gangster life.

January 28: American Gangsters: The Sopranos: The series concludes with the minor Season 1 characters who embody the real strengths of the troubling TV show.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, January 28, 2022

January 28, 2022: American Gangsters: The Sopranos

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On the minor characters who exemplify the real strengths of the troubling Golden Age TV show.

Full disclosure first—up until a couple years ago I had only ever seen bits and pieces of David Chase’s groundbreaking turn of the 21st century HBO show The Sopranos. It was during the lockdowns of 2020 that I, like apparently so many of my fellow Americans, finally got around to streaming the show—and even then, I only got into somewhere in the middle of the second season before stopping. I fully recognized and agreed with how well the show was made on every level, starting with a truly titanic (and apparently quite taxing) central performance from James Gandolfini as the conflicted mob boss and family patriarch Tony Soprano. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t help feeling that it was the latest in a long line of cultural glorifications of such gangsters, and I simply wasn’t interested in making my way through six seasons/86 episodes of that familiar narrative (between this and my non-favorites post on Breaking Bad, maybe I need to turn in my AmericanTVStudier Card, I dunno).

I need to say a bit more about what I mean by “glorification” in this case, though. I’m not thinking of the humanization of Tony, which was probably inevitable the second that such a brilliant actor was cast and which is fine in any case (TV characters should be multi-dimensional humans!). I don’t even really mean the way that the show pushes its audience to root for Tony, although that was the case and is deeply problematic—not just because he’s a murderous mob boss, but also and especially because he’s a terrible husband and father, a racist who abuses women, etc. (and no, having a truly awful mother doesn’t make any of those things much better). No, my biggest problem with The Sopranos’ portrayal of its gangster protagonist is that one of the show’s central themes—the ways in which turn of the 21st century America is a culture in decline—directly supports Tony’s consistent nostalgia about the good old days of mob and criminal life (as well as white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and a good deal more besides). Those narratives gave us our gangster in chief, full stop.

So clearly I’m not much of a Tony fan—but in the portions of the show I watched (and of course I’m open to pushback on any of this from folks who’ve seen it all, along with anyone else as ever!), I did find its portrayal of many different layers of the criminal worlds of turn of the century New Jersey and America consistently compelling. Particularly exemplary of that element of the show was the brief season one plotline (in episode three, “Denial, Anger, Acceptance”) involved a Jewish American hotelier (Chuck Low) who was having problems with his son-in-law (Ned Eisenberg) and came to Tony and the mob for help. Eisenberg’s character in particular worked within the world of the show—he was a stubborn badass who impressed Tony and his men despite their intent of intimidating him—but also, in his brief screentime, opened up interesting themes of multi-generational familial and cultural identities, the roles of faith and tradition in modern American society, and the similarities and differences between Jewish and Italian American organizations. The Sopranos wasn’t the kind of show that would follow these multiple characters and families, but even in brief glimpses they were to my mind the best of its stories and world.

January Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

Thursday, January 27, 2022

January 27, 2022: American Gangsters: Aaron Hernandez

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On a sports scandal and the allure and the illusion of gangsters.

As this week’s series has amply illustrated, from Jesse James to Al Capone, Scarface to, well, Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde to Mickey and Mallory, there’s certainly nothing new about our American love affair with outlaws and gangsters, with those who make the wrong side of the law seem like the right response to our crazy country and world. In fact, you could say that self-made criminals have been idealized in our narratives for about as long as the self-made man has. So anybody who critiques one of the more recent cultural representations of that fascination (and yesterday’s subject), gangster rap, as something particularly new or disturbing is either unaware of these longstanding histories and narratives or (more likely, to my mind) trying to mask racial or cultural attitudes toward that particular genre behind these more general, moralizing critiques.

But on the other hand, just because gangster rap isn’t new doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to critique it, or at least its most excessive versions; and a few years back I experienced a striking contrast that led me to one such critique. I had been re-watching all five seasons of The Wire and came to my favorite, Season 4, with its focus on four middle school boys struggling with childhood and adult realities in West Baltimore. Each of the four is, in his own catastrophic way, directly impacted by the culture of the corners, of the drug trade—a culture that traffics (pun intended) heavily in the gangster mythos (it’s no accident that the professional killer Snoop wears a Scarface shirt in one episode). And while I watched these four young men (fictional characters, but no less real because of it) experience the darkest realities of those myths, I happened at the same time to hear numerous gangster rap tracks on the local rap and hip hop radio station, including (to cite only one example) Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” in which he raps “Oh you got a gun so now you wanna pop back?/AK47 now nigga, stop that!/Cement shoes, now I’m on the move/Your family’s crying, now you on the news.”

Again, the gap between the image and the reality of gangsters has been part of our narratives for centuries—but I can’t help but feel that the gap is particularly destructive when it impacts young men for whom gangster life is a very real possibility, rather than simply the briefly attractive fantasy it offers so many of us. One young man for whom it seems to have been an all-too-real possibility is Aaron Hernandez, the professional football player who was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison in one of the more shocking and horrific sports scandals in history; another was Odin Lloyd, the local Boston man Hernandez was convicted of murdering. Whatever precisely happened on the June night that was Lloyd’s last, it seems clear (to me, at least) that both Lloyd and Hernandez were caught up in the pursuit of a gangster life, of the guns and the crew and the respect and all the myths that come with it. And when the realities caught up with the myths, their American stories—like all those I’ve mentioned in this post—ended tragically.

Last GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

January 26, 2022: American Gangsters: Gangster Rap

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On three telling stages in the evolution of the influential musical genre.

1)      Schoolly D (1985): Defining a genre or subgenre’s origin point is never simple nor straightforward, but no less an authority than Ice-T has defined Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D’s self-titled debut album as one such key starting point for the genre that would become known as gangster rap. And to elucidate that foundational definition I would highlight in particular one section of the final verse of that album’s most famous song, “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”: “Got to the place and who did I see/A sucker-ass nigga trying to sound like me/Put my pistol up against his head/And said, ‘You sucker-ass nigga I should shoot you dead’/A thought ran across my educated mind/Said, man, Schoolly D ain’t doing no time/Grabbed the microphone and I started to talk/Sucker-ass nigga, man, he started to walk.”

2)      Fuck tha Police” (1988) and “Cop Killer” (1992): As the shift from “Put my pistol up against his head” to “Schoolly D ain’t doing no time” indicates, gangster rap’s origins lay in a complex combination of genuine criminal threats and practiced performative poses. That combination has remained part of the genre ever since, but the balance between the two sides has shifted over time, and I would argue that with the rise of artists like N.W.A. and Ice-T it shifted more toward stories (and perhaps realities) of actual gangsters and criminal actions. Or at least, as these two successful and controversial songs illustrate, of the longstanding pop culture antagonism between such iconic gangsters and law enforcement. As Ice-T correctly noted in defending “Cop Killer,” pop culture has featured countless portrayals of such clashes, so much of the controversy was rooted in racism. But nonetheless, these songs did represent an evolution of the genre and its visions of gangsters.

3)      The “Bling Era”: There are various ways to contextualize one of the next main such evolutions, back toward more performative posing (this time frequently tied to celebrations of the success and wealth that the rappers had achieved). But I would argue that two tragic (and perhaps interconnected) murders within six months—the September 1996 killing of Tupac Shakur and the March 1997 killing of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls—played a significant role in this shift. After all, jail time is far from the worst possible consequence of the kinds of actions and stories gangster rappers had been highlighting since Schoolly D; I’m not for a second arguing that Tupac and Biggie’s songs caused their murders, but rather noting that violence and death are intrinsic elements to the worlds of gangsters. They’ve certainly remained core elements of gangster rap into the 21st century as well, but with ongoing shifts in how they’re portrayed as well as the realities of the artists portraying them.

Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

January 25, 2022: American Gangsters: Capturing Capone

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On takeaways from three pop culture representations of the iconic gangster.

1)      The Untouchables (1987): That hyperlinked clip sums up much of what I’d say about the single most famous pop culture portrayal of Capone: exactly what you would expect, both in satisfying ways (De Niro is never less than riveting) and in somewhat frustrating ways. As its title suggests, Brian De Palma’s film is much more focused on the men who took down Capone, and I’m fine with that; as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m no fan of films that glamorize despicable men like Capone. But De Niro’s depiction is so clichéd that, while it’s a fun over-the-top villain against whom we enjoy rooting, I would argue we learn nothing new about Capone, nor about gangsters overall, through this version of the character.

2)      Boardwalk Empire (2010-14): A TV show that ran for 57 episodes across five seasons is of course an entirely different animal than a single feature film, and while the show’s main gangster character was Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, Stephen Graham’s Al Capone appeared (or at least was credited—I’m confess to not having watched every episode) in all 57 of those episodes as well. That sentence alone reflects a key difference in this portrayal of Capone (and of gangsters overall)—depicting him as part of larger communities and networks, as one gangster working with and alongside, as well as against, much larger organizations and conspiracies. While the show wasn’t immune to those aforementioned clichés, I’d say it broke significant new ground in depicting such iconic individuals and types, particularly as part of their historical and cultural moments and worlds.

3)      Tintin in America (1932): Having never read the now-infamous Tintin in the Congo (1931; my younger son has read it and reports it’s as racist as you would expect), I didn’t realize until researching this post that Hergé had introduced Al Capone as a villain in that book before making him a chief antagonist of this 1932 sequel. Tintin’s Capone is one of two particularly mythic elements in a book full of them, with the other being Hergé’s sympathetic but still stereotypical depiction of Native Americans. The author had never traveled to America, so it stands to reason his representation would be based on iconic images; he did apparently do some research of his own, however, relying especially on a magazine article by journalist Claude Blanchard entitled “America and the Americans.” That makes the book’s Capone a combination of clichéd myth and actual contemporary figure, which sounds about right for this most iconic of American gangsters.

Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

Monday, January 24, 2022

January 24, 2022: American Gangsters: The Godfather Part II

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On the profoundly American layers to our greatest gangster story.

Given the enduring and justified popularity of and critical approbation for the first film, this might be AmericanStudies (or at least AmericanFilmStudies) heresy, but I’m not sure any American text (in any medium or genre) represents a more unexpectedly impressive reflection and commentary on our national narratives and identity than Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather:  Part II (1974). Anybody who has read the original source material, Mario Puzo’s pulp classic The Godfather (1969), is likely to agree with me about the unexpectedness; Puzo’s novel is fun but really quite pulp-y, from the opening’s graphic sex scene to the many similarly lowbrow highlights throughout. Puzo actually adapted his own novel for both of the first two films, and to my mind the first film, 1972’s The Godfather (1972), while undoubtedly a triumph in many ways, really tells one story: Michael Corleone’s. It tells it exceptionally well, and Al Pacino has never been better, but the thorough focus on Michael makes the film at least somewhat narrow in its themes and ideas as well.

While Puzo again worked with Coppola on the screenplay for the second film, while most of the original’s cast returned, and while Michael’s continuing trajectory is still very much at its core, it’s nonetheless difficult to overstate just how much more broad and deep Part II is, most especially in its connection to American narratives and identities. That extension and deepening is really the result of a couple of core and pitch-perfect structural choices made by Puzo and Coppola, one utilizing some material from the novel but in a very unique way, the other entirely new to this second film. For the first, the film incorporates Vito Corleone’s backstory from the novel, with a young Robert De Niro stepping into Marlon Brando’s shoes and fully inhabiting this younger version of the Don; even more impressive than De Niro’s quiet and nuanced performance and the recreation of this turn of the 20th century world (from Sicily to America and back again), however, is the way in which the film transitions back and forth between the flashbacks and Michael’s story in the present. The parallels complicate and yet amplify the film’s themes of a multigenerational American family’s progress from immigration to assimilation to power, making the Corleone family’s narrative a deeply and unsettlingly American one at every stage. And there’s one transition in particular, as De Niro holds a baby Michael in the past and then we transition to the adult Michael watching his young son sleep, that is as human and heartbreaking as anything in American film.

The film’s second, entirely new structural choice takes that present story of Michael’s to entirely new places, literally and figuratively, and is perhaps even more inspired. As part of his budding relationship with an older Jewish American crime boss, Hyman Roth, Michael travels to Cuba, where the dictatorial Batista government has been working hand in hand with wealthy American business (and criminal) interests to the mutual benefit for both sides. This new setting allows for the film not only to represent Castro’s revolution and the chaos and change it unleashes in Cuba (and within these American communities that have depended on Batista for much of their business and success), but also to set many of Michael’s own crises—including the breakdown of his relationship with Roth and, most importantly for the film, his revelations about his brother Fredo’s participation in efforts to assassinate him—against the backdrop of this society undergoing such powerful shifts. And while the specific historical details are hugely complex and interesting in their own right—both about Cuba itself and about the US’s relationship with the Batista regime—the thematic implications, the reflections on the kinds of American, political, and social power to which the Corleone family has ascended (and the kinds of people who resist such power, people in Cuba who seem quite literally parallel to where Vito Corleone and the family began in Sicily in relationship to that society’s power structures), are even more rich and revealing.

I’ll admit that I’ve never seen the whole of Part III (both because of the very critical things I’ve read and because, I suppose, I want Part II to be the culmination), so I can’t write with any authority about the trilogy as a whole. But ultimately, my point here is that whether you’re seen the first or the third films, whether you like gangster movies or historical epics or Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or hate all of those things and people with a fiery passion, The Godfather: Part II is not just our greatest gangster story but one of the greatest American films of all time, with a strong and significant emphasis on American. Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

Saturday, January 22, 2022

January 22-23, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: Two Sandlots

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ve previewed texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to this weekend update on my book project in progress!],

Life has done what it does in early 2022, and I don’t have a ton of new info to report on my next book project, Two Sandlots: Baseball, Bigotry, and the Battle for America. I continue to work with my amazing agent, Suzy Evans, on preparing the proposal and finding a home; and this Spring I’ll be teaching adult learning classes for my two favorite such programs, ALFA and WISE, on the book’s focal histories, stories, and subjects, which should help me keep moving the work forward. Can’t wait to share more with you all, so watch this space—and let me know what you’re working on this Spring and beyond, please!

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Friday, January 21, 2022

January 21, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: The Short Story Online

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ll preview texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to a weekend update on my book project in progress!]

On three stimulating pairings from my accelerated online Short Story syllabus.

1)      Girl” and “I Stand Here Ironing”: We start our seven-week semester with this pair of stories about mothers and daughters, multi-generational continuities and changes, social expectations and pressures, and where and how we place our sympathies as readers (the topic for their weekly response post on whichever story they choose to analyze). I’ve used this pairing in at least a dozen sections over the last decade, and continue to get different responses and ideas from students, which is about as positive a recommendation for these stories’ quality as you could ever find.

2)      Boys Go to Jupiter” and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”: Danielle Evans’ story is one of my favorites of all time, as that hyperlinked post (among many others) indicates. It’s about many important things, including race and racism to be sure; but fundamentally it’s a portrait of a teenage girl struggling with the many different kinds of pressures and forces that are part of her 21st century life and world. That makes it a very provocative pairing with Joyce Carol Oates’ famous 1960s depiction of those issues and themes in my course’s second week, and my prompt asking students to analyze one of these protagonists always produces thoughtful and compelling work.   

3)      Chapter Two” and “Sonny’s Blues”: At the end of our seven weeks we come to this pair of long, challenging, stunning stories about addiction, family and community, and the lies and truths we tell to and about ourselves. This is the only weekly post where I ask students to analyze both stories (in preparation for their similarly comparative final paper), and one particularly striking topic for such comparisons is the very different ways Antonya Nelson and James Baldwin use the literary elements of narration and perspective to frame those similar themes. A great reminder of the nuanced work all of our authors do to create these amazing stories!

Special update post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Thursday, January 20, 2022

January 20, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: American Lit II

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ll preview texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to a weekend update on my book project in progress!]

On the three books I’m requiring my survey students to purchase (the first time I’ve done so in a couple years), and why.

1)      Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929): The chance to read Nella Larsen’s first two books in full—and to do so in that wonderful hyperlinked edition, edited by my friend Deborah McDowell—is the primary reason why I shifted my thinking about this course this time around, after a few sections where we’ve only read things available online (and only excerpted versions of longer works). Larsen is one of our great authors, these books are both to my mind must-reads (even before the new film adaptation of Passing put that book back on our collective map), and this is the only way we can really read her and them.

2)      Ceremony (1977): Once I had made that shift in my mind, it allowed me the freedom to add back onto the syllabus other longer readings that are not available in full online (because they’re too recent) and not even really excerpted there (for whatever reason). That hyperlinked post is one of many in which I’ve made the case for Leslie Marmon Silko’s book, my second favorite American novel and one that truly needs to be read in full to be understood and appreciated (the favorite section about which I write in that post comes toward the end). I’ll be very glad to share it with a new group of students!

3)      The Namesake (2003): Ceremony is great but hugely challenging, both for students to read and thus for me to teach. So I’ve always loved that my American Lit II syllabus follows that long reading with Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, one of the most readable and teachable works I’ve ever encountered and one that opens up so many themes and threads of identity for our discussions and for student response and writing. I’ve really missed the chance to teach it over these last couple years, and ending the semester with it is once again one of the things I’ll most look forward to this Spring!

Last preview post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

January 19, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: First Year Writing II

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ll preview texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to a weekend update on my book project in progress!]

Three genres of student paper I’m excited to read in my two Writing II sections.

1)      Ad Analyses: My Writing II syllabus starts with a short unit on advertisements, for a couple reasons: it begins the semester with the skill of close reading specifics from one text (of the students’ choosing), on which to my mind all other forms of analysis are built; and it helps us start talking about the many images and narratives which our 21st century world is always creating and sending our way. Where and how students find their ads has evolved a great in my years teaching this course, and it’s been exciting to see how YouTube ads and online banner ads offer distinct analytical frames from TV commercials and print ads. Can’t wait to see where these two classes start out!

2)      Personal Narratives: The class’s overall focus is on writing 21st century identities, and it’s the second unit—which includes two papers so is significantly longer than the first—where we really begin to explore the multiple layers to that content. More exactly, it’s there where the students generally start to write about their own identities (some do so as part of the ad analysis, but it’s not required), as we read and discuss both personal narratives and essays that engage with elements of 21st century identities (especially around social media and technology). I use and enjoy reading student personal narratives in a few different classes, but these Writing II papers always offer particularly great lenses into not just my students, but how they’re moving through this moment and world of ours.

3)      Research Papers: First Year Writing II at Fitchburg State concludes with a research analysis paper for all sections, as I believe it should (now more than ever, skills of information literacy alone couldn’t be more important). Every time I teach the course, I struggle with one particular aspect of this culminating assignment: I’m 1000% committed to giving students the freedom to choose and design their own topic; but for many of them, that flexibility is hugely daunting and they’d greatly prefer for me to assign a topic. I hear that, and am always willing to offer suggestions (especially ones based on prior student work in the class), but I remain absolutely committed to that openness, as in my experience it really allows students to write papers that reflect—and analyze—their own interests and identities very potently. Excited to read these two new batches come May!

Next preview post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

January 18, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: 19th Century Women Writers

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ll preview texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to a weekend update on my book project in progress!]

On three reasons for the one book I’m requiring my grad students to buy, Joyce Warren’s edition of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall and Other Writings.

1)      Hungry Husbands” (1857): Fern was first and foremost a groundbreaking newspaper columnist, a writer who wed humor and social commentary in truly innovative ways that make her feel fresh and salient in our own moment as well as opening up a wonderfully alternative window into mid-19th century America. Some of those columns, like “Hungry,” are available online, but it’s by reading a bunch in a collection like Warren’s that we really can appreciate Fern’s voice and style.

2)      Blackwell’s Island series (1858): Fern’s journalism went way beyond that particular brand of column, however, as exemplified by her multi-part series on this women’s prison in New York Harbor. Those columns are not available online, and are required reading to give us a genuine sense of the breadth and depth of Fern’s writing and career—so I’m very grateful that Warren collected them in this edition.

3)      Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (1855): Fern’s autobiographical novel complements her journalism in at least two ways: reflecting the darker sides of her experiences, which open up all sorts of 19th century issues around gender, marriage, family, money, and more; and offering a witty and biting alternative to any stereotypes we might have about “sentimental” fiction. Teaching it alongside Fern’s journalism is something I hardly ever get to do, so this Spring’s grad class is the perfect opportunity!

Next preview post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Monday, January 17, 2022

January 17, 2022: Spring Semester Previews: Major Authors: W.E.B. Du Bois

[A new semester is upon us, so this week I’ll preview texts I’m excited to teach in my Spring 2022 classes. Leading up to a weekend update on my book project in progress!]

On three (of the many) Du Bois texts that speak to our current moment.

1)      Returning Soldiers” (1919): It’s a tragic and telling irony that the explosion of racial terrorism known as the Red Summer of 1919 was caused by white supremacist backlash to the very sight—hell, the very idea—of African American WWI veterans. No text helps us better remember that backlash more than Du Bois’ Crisis editorial—and none more succinctly reflects the alternative, vital idea of African American critical patriotism as well.

2)      Black Reconstruction in America (1935): In an era when the very idea of teaching race and racism has somehow become divisive, it’s fair to say that we need Du Bois’ magisterial work—to my mind still the single best historical and historiographic text I’ve ever read—more than ever. “The Propaganda of History” indeed.

3)      The Souls of Black Folk (1903): Du Bois’ best book, and one of the handful of best American books I know, features perhaps my single favorite paragraph in American writing. That would be more than enough to feature it in this post and in this course, but Souls is so, so much more—including some of the most poignant and devastating autobiographical writing I’ve ever read. Can’t wait to teach that chapter and all things Du Bois this Spring!

Next preview post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or other work you want to share?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

January 15-16, 2022: Crowd-sourced Political Women

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ve AmericanStudied Caraway and a handful of other political women. Leading up to this crowd-sourced weekend post featuring responses & nominations from fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]

Responding to Tuesday’s Jeannette Rankin post, Amanda Mecke tweets, There was much space between Lindbergh and GOP Isolationists and a sincere pacifist like Rankin no doubt, but her unsupported stance after the destruction of the fleet in Pearl Harbor meant she offered no acceptable alternative not just to war mongers but even Quakers etc.” She follows up, “I think the agonizing choice of Quakers who fought in WWII provides interesting contrast to Rankin’s political choices among 3 US prongs: US anti-Semitism; recognized pacifism only for organized religions like Quakers or Amish; & both right wing & liberal anti-Stalin discomfort.”

Rebecca Fachner (one of our most badass contemporary political & public history voices) writes, “Rankin was such a boss. She knew the vote against WW2 would cost her the next election and did it anyway. True courage.” She adds, “Also, she’s the only woman in American history to vote to give women the vote. She’s just so great.”

Responding to Friday’s Shirley Chisholm post, Winston Smith shares this video “for those of us who have never experienced the power of Shirley Chisholm.”

One of my favorite podcasters, Kelly Therese Pollock, shares this Sagas of She episode where she talked about Chisholm.

Responding to the series’ subject overall, Irene Martyniuk writes, I think it is always important to consider all the women who serve at the local level in politics—for instance, our now-retired colleagues Judy Budz and Margarite Landry who have served and continues to serve on various committees in their town or my sister who also sits on various committees in her township. ‘All politics is local’ and these women (all of whom serve without remuneration or fanfare) are vital pieces in American democracy.”

Some great Twitter additions to the conversation:

M.A. Davis tweets, “Ruth Bryan Owen deserves to be better-remembered. Largely in the same memory hole as her dad but an important figure in women’s politics.”

Tiffany Wayne shares “a piece I wrote back in 2016 about another woman who ran for President back in the 1970s, part of a series of blog posts by Nursing Clio called ‘Run like a Girl.’”

Spring Semester previews series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

Friday, January 14, 2022

January 14, 2022: Women in Politics: Shirley Chisholm’s Campaigns

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On two telling political efforts beyond Chisholm’s groundbreaking presidential campaign.

I started this week’s series with the first woman to run for president, so it’s only appropriate to end the week with the first to run for the Democratic presidential nomination (and the second woman to seek a major party nomination, after Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith in 1964), and the first African American presidential candidate to boot: New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm’s 1972 campaign was groundbreaking for both of those reasons, and was also quite successful, with the candidate achieving significant results (sometimes classified as wins, although each case is complicated) in the New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi primaries, and eventually garnering 152 delegates (some symbolically released by the nominee George McGovern, but all real nonetheless) at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Everything I said in Monday’s post about the symbolic significance of Victoria Woodhull’s 1872 campaign holds true for Chisholm’s campaign a century later, and I’d say Chisholm’s represented a significantly more serious contention for the nomination as well.

If that were Chisholm’s only contribution to national politics it would be more than enough to deserve collective memory—but it’s not, and her participation in a couple specific efforts helps us better remember the full scope of her half-century career in politics. Chisholm’s first political work took place in 1953, the same year that the 29-year-old Chisholm began directing a couple New York City child care centers (putting her MA in Elementary Education from Columbia’s Teachers College to work in the process). In that year she joined prominent local Democratic politician and power broker Wesley “Mac” Holder’s successful campaign to elect Lewis Flagg Jr. as the first African American judge in Brooklyn. That campaign became the basis for a more overarching organization, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League (BPSL), which fought for civil rights, economic equality, and fairness in housing throughout the 1950s. While both those efforts were partly local in emphasis, they were also part of the burgeoning national civil rights movement—and that combination of local and national, targeted and broader political goals, is at the heart of all Congressional work, particularly in the House in which Chisholm would serve for seven groundbreaking terms between 1969 and 1983.

One of Chisholm’s many important efforts during those 14 years in Congress took place just a year before her presidential run. In 1971, she once again utilized her education and experience in early childhood education and care, teaming with fellow New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug to co-sponsor a historic bill that would allocate $10 billion toward child care services. Senator Walter Mondale came on board for the Senate version of the bill, which passed both houses in December 1971 as the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Unfortunately President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing not only that it was too costly but also that it would implement a “communal approach to child-rearing” and thus that it was “the most radical piece of legislation” to have crossed his presidential desk. The fight for federal support for child care has continued into this year, one of many arenas in which we still have a great deal to learn from the lessons and model of Shirley Chisholm.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

Thursday, January 13, 2022

January 13, 2022: Women in Politics: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Flight

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On one of the most famous American flights, and one that should be.

Our national fascination with Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)—I think you could make a case that she’s the most famous 20th century American woman—is entirely understandable. Even before she flew off into the unknown just a few weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, she was a hugely unique and compelling figure who also happened to live at precisely the right time: that era of the first prominent pilots, of the Red Baron and Charles Lindbergh (one of Earhart’s nicknames was “Lady Lindy”) and Howard Hughes, of those terrifyingly fragile-looking planes making their way across the continent and the oceans. And beyond the mythologies, of Earhart’s individual mystery and of those high-flying national figures in general, she was also a genuinely complex and interesting American, one whose identity can help us AmericanStudiers think about technology and progress, the aftermath of World War I and the lead up to World War II, gender and identity, and many other topics besides.

Yet I’d still make the case that Earhart’s final journey has some serious competition for the most significant flight featuring an American woman, and at the very least that her competitor’s flight, like her competitor herself, deserves a lot more attention in our national narratives and memories. In March 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), whose husband Franklin was just beginning his third term as President under the very dark cloud of the ongoing Second World War, visited the Tuskegee Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama. Self-taught pilot Charles Anderson had founded the school for African American civilian pilot training two years earlier, and was facing in his attempts to support and extend its efforts all of the discrimination and lack of funding and the like that we might expect in the depths of the Jim Crow South and in an era when the military itself (like so many organizations) was fully segregated. And so when the nation’s First Lady not only visited the school, but despite the protests of her Secret Service agents requested a private flight with Anderson and spent over an hour in the sky with him, the event took on a literal and a symbolic significance that is difficult to overstate. Nor was this a one-off for Roosevelt, as she facilitated a White House visit for Anderson and others later that year where they successfully lobbied for more military support and collaboration for Tuskegee.

The thousands of pilots who would graduate from Tuskegee over the next few years and become part of the Tuskegee Airmen, and what that community meant for both America’s war efforts and toward President Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the armed forces, is a rich and powerful AmericanStudies topic in its own right, and one about which I wrote in this post. But Roosevelt’s March 1941 flight likewise serves as a particularly salient single linchpin for her candidacy for my Hall of American Inspiration. While I don’t doubt that Roosevelt’s name is familiar to most Americans, I nonetheless believe that, as has been the case for all of my nominees, our narratives greatly underrate the striking breadth and depth of her contributions to American and world identity and history: from the nearly 100 columns she wrote for national magazines during her years in the White House to her service as one of America’s first Delegates to the UN General Assembly, her pioneering work as the inaugural chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights (work that culminated in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” a document that Roosevelt called “the international Magna Carta of all mankind”) to her chairing (the year before she died) of President Kennedy’s groundbreaking President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and in many other arenas and ways alongside these efforts (including her work throughout the 1920s on behalf of the Women’s Trade Union League), Roosevelt was for more than three decades one of America’s brightest lights and most powerful voices.

Amelia Earhart is largely an a-political figure, one whose appeal has (or at least can have) nothing to do with politics or with narratives that can divide as well as unite Americans; I know that it is and might always be impossible to say the same of Eleanor Roosevelt, or of any First Lady. Yet a moment like that 1941 flight with Anderson has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and the more we can remember and highlight such moments, and the inspiring Americans who made them happen, the more our national community can likewise take flight. Last political woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

January 12, 2022: Women in Politics: Hattie Caraway’s Elections

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On one particularly interesting detail from each of Caraway’s three Senate campaigns.

1)      1932: In December 1931 Caraway was appointed to serve the final year of her late husband Thaddeus Caraway’s Senate term, a practice that had gone on for nearly a decade by that time. Caraway then won a special election 90 years ago today, making her the first woman formally elected to the Senate. But it was her announcement that she would run in the 1932 general election for Arkansas Senator that represented a truly original and bold step, and she was able to win that controversial and groundbreaking election thanks in part to the efforts of a Senator from a neighboring state, Louisiana’s Huey Long. It was apparently Long’s idea to plant crying babies (who would then be effectively quieted) in the crowd at Caraway rallies, a unique way to acknowledge her gender while implying her ability to transcend any gender stereotypes—as she certainly did in willing the 1932 election.

2)      1938: During her first term Caraway was a dedicated supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, as well as a committed advocate for farmers and flood control and, unfortunately, a telling early 20th century Southern Democrat (she took part in a filibuster of a 1938 anti-lynching bill). She was also known as “Silent Hattie,” as she generally refrained from speaking on the Senate floor. But if critics thought her silence meant she wouldn’t run for reelection, they were mistaken; as was her 1938 primary opponent, Representative John Little McClellan, in his sexist campaign slogan “Arkansas Needs Another Man in the Senate!” The primary was tight but Caraway triumphed and then easily won the general election, becoming the first woman to be reelected to the Senate in the process.

3)      1944: Caraway sought reelection again in 1944 but placed 4th in the Democratic primary, ending her Senate career. Part of that was due to a crowded field of compelling candidates, led by the winner and next Arkansas Senator, a young up-and-coming Congressman named J. William Fulbright. But part was due to her two boldest Senatorial stances: her 1943 co-sponsorship of the Equal Rights Amendment, making her the first woman to do so; and her 1944 co-sponsorship of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the G.I. Bill), which despite its eventual popularity was at the time quite divisive as it was seen by many as socialist. Those stands may well have cost Caraway her chance at a third term, but they also reflected an important step for this groundbreaking Senator, as she fully embraced her role and voice and contributed meaningfully to these important and ongoing efforts.

Next political woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?