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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

May 31, 2022: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass

[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]

On one of the great American speeches, and why it’d be so important to add to our collective memories.

In a long-ago guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Atlantic blog, Civil War historian Andy Hall highlighted Frederick Douglass’s amazing 1871 Decoration Day speech (full text available at the first hyperlink in this sentence). Delivered at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, then as now the single largest resting place of U.S. soldiers, Douglass’s short but incredibly (if not surprisingly) eloquent and pointed speech has to be ranked as one of the most impressive in American history. I’m going to end this first paragraph here so you can read the speech in full (again, it’s at the first hyperlink above), and I’ll see you in a few.

Welcome back! If I were to close-read Douglass’s speech, I could find choices worth extended attention in every paragraph and every line. But I agree with Hall’s final point, that the start of Douglass’s concluding paragraph—“But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic”—is particularly noteworthy and striking. Granted, this was not yet the era that would come to be dominated by narratives of reunion and reconciliation between the regions, and then by ones of conversation to the Southern perspective (on all of which, see tomorrow’s post); an era in which Douglass’s ideas would be no less true, nor in which (I believe) he would have hesitated to share them, but in which a Decoration Day organizing committee might well have chosen not to invite a speaker who would articulate such a clear and convincing take on the causes and meanings of the Civil War. Yet even in 1871, to put that position so bluntly and powerfully at such an occasion would have been impressive for even a white speaker, much less an African American one.

If we were to better remember Douglass’s Decoration Day speech, that would be one overt and important effect: to push back on so many of the narratives of the Civil War that have developed in the subsequent century and a half. One of the most frequent such narratives is that there was bravery and sacrifice on both sides, as if to produce a leveling effect on our perspective on the war—but as Douglass notes in the paragraph before that conclusion, recognizing individual bravery in combat is not at all the same as remembering a war: “The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle.” I believe Douglass here can be connected to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and its own concluding notion of honoring the dead through completing “the unfinished work”: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That work and task remained unfinished and great long after the Civil War’s end, after all—and indeed remain so to this day in many ways. Just another reason to better remember Frederick Douglass’s Decoration Day speech.

Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Monday, May 30, 2022

May 30, 2022: Remembering Memorial Day

[Before a series on Decoration Day, the holiday that preceded and evolved into Memorial Day, a special post on shifting our collective memories of the holiday’s histories.]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation. I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?

I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the more than 50,000 American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.

Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.

Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be. Next Decoration Day post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 28, 2022

May 28-29, 2022: Sydney Kruszka’s Guest Post: Why We Should All Read Maus

[A year ago, I had the chance to share a couple wonderful Guest Posts from students in my friend Robin Field’s classes at King’s College. Well, I’m back with another such great Guest Post from such a student, Sydney Kruszka on the very timely question of why we should all read Art Spiegelman’s Maus!]

[Sydney Kruszka is currently attending King's College with a major in Nursing. In her spare time she enjoys playing and coaching soccer, reading, and spending time with family and friends.]

Maus by Art Spiegelman should be read by the general public as it encapsulates the horrors of the Holocaust in an educational and effective manner. Spiegelman depicts the massacre using comic book art allowing the reader to physically see an insight on the day-to-day misery that Polish Jews faced. The text really spoke to me in the first few pages. The beginning of Maus shows Art Spiegelman writing his excerpt along with speech bubbles dangling over his head containing all the baggage he is internally carrying. These few comic strips highlight the fact that you never truly know what someone is going through. In addition, the excerpt’s content educates the reader on the physical, emotional, and mental abuse that Polish Jews endured along with the aftermath of such abuse.

Those who were sent to the concentration camps in Auschwitz were required to do countless hours of manual labor. Spiegelman incorporates a few examples of the grueling labor which included: carrying heavy cans of soup, carrying large stones back and forth, and digging out large sections of the ground that essentially was a future grave. This may not sound extremely grueling, but the Jewish were awfully malnourished, so their physical limits were quite inhibited. Spiegelman emphasized this malnourishment by sketching the bodies to resemble merely skin and bones. The ratio of the weight of the cans, stones, soil, etc. was heavily favored compared to the weight of the unfortunate soul suffering through the labor. This caused their bodies to collapse and impede them from continuing. Even though their bodies were far past their breaking point the Nazi’s would beat them for leaving the labor being incomplete.  

The abuse did not only entail physical harm. Emotional damage was also a result of the treatment from the concentration camps. Spiegelman’s graphics show the dehumanization that occurred, such as everyone wearing the same prisoner-like outfit. Those in the camp were immediately stripped of their individuality as they were all forced to wear the same clothing and were assigned a number that would be used in place of their birth name.

Lastly, many of the Polish Jews who survived mentally suffered long after the Holocaust was over. At the end of the excerpt from Maus the reader gets a sense of an example of the aftermath. Vladek, the main character from this excerpt, is seen to be experiencing a restless sleep. The reader can hypothesize that this is a common occurrence based on it being said that “he’s moaning in his sleep again” (74). A symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is reliving the traumatic event through nightmares. With that, the reader can connect this mental health condition to all the abuse that some Jews survived through.

Although the Holocaust began in the early 1940s the event is still relevant to the present day. The majority of schools incorporate the Holocaust into their curriculum, and for the right reasons. However, a school board in Tennessee has banned Maus from their curriculum “due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust” (CNBC). If more schools begin to censor topics such as the Holocaust the generations to come will never be aware of the horrors that affected so many lives. The Holocaust curriculum is relevant to lives today to teach the valuable lesson that someone’s religious beliefs do not open a rite of passage for discrimination, religious persecution, or genocide. While children are young their brains can be compared to a sponge, because everything they hear their brain soaks up. So, teaching children about the Holocaust while they are adolescent will result in a better appreciation for religious freedom later down the road.

Maus by Art Spiegelman links to the contemporary issue of religious persecution. Granted, the Holocaust is still one of the biggest mass genocides up to date, but those who practice the Jewish faith, Hinduism, Muslim faith etc. still experience religious persecution. Humans were designed to be individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; however, a lack of respect for people’s individuality has created religious persecution. Maus heavily emphasizes the lack of respect the Germans had for Polish Jews. Without a mutual respect for someone’s beliefs, or lack thereof, religious persecution will never fade. Spiegelman's depiction of the Holocaust is a wakeup call in that history will repeat itself if this contemporary issue does not get resolved.

Maus by Art Spiegelman should be read by the general public, because of the education it provides and how it is provided. Spiegelman informs the reader about the physical, emotional, and mental abuse Polish Jews underwent every single day. His comic book graphics help the reader to physically see the intensity of the concentration camps. The reader could see the malnourishment of each individual as Spiegelman portrayed the Jews as essentially walking skeletons. The reader can clearly see everyone’s rib cage practically bursting through their skin, no one had any stomach fat left so they appeared to have “washboard abs”, and their appendages were drawn to be extremely thin and flimsy.

Unfortunately, this topic needs to stay relevant to the present day to protect our religious freedom. Therefore, this text should be a part of every school's curriculum as it will open the eyes of the young to a very real event that occurred and how something as traumatic as the Holocaust can occur again if it is forgotten. If we do not remember, we forget.


Mangan, Dan. “Tennessee school board bans Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” - author Art Spiegelman condemns the move as ‘Orwellian’”. CNBC. 28 January 2022. Tennessee school board bans Holocaust comic 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman (

[Memorial Day series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute?]

May 28, 2022: May 2022 Recap

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

May 2: Images of Internment: Three Representations: On the 80th anniversary of an infamous broadside, a series on Japanese incarceration kicks off with three cultural representations of the historic horror.

May 3: Images of Internment: The Civil Liberties Act: The series continues with two things the 1988 law got right, and one way it came up short.

May 4: Images of Internment: Yuri Kochiyama: A few of the many reasons we should better remember the inspiring activist, as the series rolls on.

May 5: Images of Internment: Allegiance and No No Boy: Two cultural works that together help us better remember a particularly complex part of the story.

May 6: Images of Internment: Korematsu (and Endo): The series concludes with two contradictory but interconnected Supreme Court cases that together helped end incarceration.

May 7-8: Scholarship on Internment: A special week post on a handful of the many scholars doing the vital work.

May 9: Spring Semester Reflections: Du Bois Seminar: The Spring 2022 semester was the hardest yet, but it still had amazing individual moments. So for my semester reflections I wanted to highlight some, starting with a wonderful class-long conversation in my Du Bois seminar.

May 10: Spring Semester Reflections: First Year Writing II: The series continues with great film studies conversations in my First Year Writing II classes.

May 11: Spring Semester Reflections: American Lit II: The benefits of putting multiple authors and texts in conversation with each other, as the series teaches on.

May 12: Spring Semester Reflections: 19th Century Women Writers Grad Class: Why I’m really glad I made a last-minute decision to include some readings in the first meeting of my grad class.

May 13: Spring Semester Reflections: The Short Story Online: The series concludes with the 21st century story to which students in my online class responded particularly impressively.

May 14-15: Spring Semester Reflections: Adult Ed and Two Sandlots: A special weekend post on what my adult learning courses contributed to my book manuscript in progress.

May 16: Aviation Histories: The Wright Brothers: Ahead of an important aviation anniversary, a series kicks off with three lesser-known facts about the brothers who changed the world.

May 17: Aviation Histories: Charles Lindbergh: The series continues with how history can overshadow history, and why we should partly resist that trend.

May 18: Aviation Histories: Eleanor Roosevelt and Tuskegee: The profoundly historic flight that we should be much better remembered, as the series soars on.

May 19: Aviation Histories: Howard Hughes: How to acclaimed films remember the iconoclastic aviator, and how to complement both narratives.

May 20: Aviation Histories: Sully: The series concludes with the quiet lessons of an averted disaster, and the film that didn’t quite learn them.

May 20-21: Aviation Histories: Amelia Earhart: For the 90th anniversary of her historic flight, a few additional layers to Earhart’s solo transatlantic journey.

May 23: Star Wars Studying: A Cross-Cultural Force: Ahead of the release of Obi Wan, a Star Wars series kicks off with how the first film’s debt reveals the saga’s cross-cultural meanings.

May 24: Star Wars Studying: The Force Awakens and Marketing: The series continues with why I loved the new trilogy’s innovative nostalgia, and why it’s multi-level marketing worries me.

May 25: Star Wars Studying: Rogue One, Diversity, and War: Two ways my favorite Star Wars film pushed the envelope for the saga, as the series blasts on.

May 26: Star Wars Studying: Yoda, Luke, and Love: What the wisest Jedi Master got very wrong, and why the opposite lesson matters so much.

May 27: Star Wars Studying: The Thrawn Trilogy: The series concludes with what Timothy Zahn’s novels meant to fans, and what that can tell us about genre storytelling.

Next Guest Post drops in a few hours,


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

Friday, May 27, 2022

May 27, 2022: Star Wars Studying: The Thrawn Trilogy

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

On what Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels meant to fans, and what that can help us analyze about genre storytelling.

It’s very difficult to explain to my sons, growing up as they are in the era not only of the new Star Wars films and shows, but of the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, of numerous Star Wars video games, and even of Star Wars amusement parks for crying out loud, how much of a void there was for a young Star Wars fan in the years after Return of the Jedi (1984). I was almost 7 when Jedi came out, just coming into my own as a full-fledged Star Wars fan; the next new film, The Phantom Menace, wouldn’t be released until 1999, when I was about to turn 22 and not quite in the same place as that 7 year old StarWarsStudier had been. Although George Lucas tried to bridge the gap by re-releasing the original trilogy with new footage in the 1990s (not all of it uniformly awful, although I still shudder in horror every time I have to watch Han Solo step on Jabba the Hutt’s tail in that inserted New Hope sequence), I think it’s fair to say that if we fans had been left with no new Star Wars stories between Jedi and Phantom, many of us might have left the Star Wars universe behind for fresher storytelling pastures.

But we weren’t left so bereft, and the main reasons were the three novels in science fiction writer Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy: Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993). There had been novelizations and comic book versions of the films, but Zahn’s books, set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and featuring both returning and new characters, were the first truly new literary stories set in the Star Wars universe, creating (or at least popularizing) the now-familiar concept of the “expanded universe.” This teenage AmericanStudier had already read and loved plenty of fantasy and science fiction books and series by the time Heir to the Empire appeared, but there was nonetheless something different about such expanded universe books, something particularly potent in the way they (that is, the way Zahn) blended the familiar with the new, built on a world and characters and settings we knew and cared about while taking them and us in unfamiliar and uncertain directions. Clearly that wasn’t just me; Heir to the Empire was a #1 New York Times bestseller, the trilogy sold a combined 15 million copies (to date), and the books’ popularity has even been credited by one Star Wars historian (Michael Kaminsky) with helping convince George Lucas to make the prequel films.

So what might we make of those effects, of the potent cultural role of Zahn’s Star Wars novels? Much of what my Fitchburg State colleague Heather Urbanski argues in her study The Science Fiction Reboot: Canon, Innovation, and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises (2013) is certainly relevant to that question; Urbanski counter critiques of reboots or sequels as unoriginal, arguing instead that such works, and franchises overall, tap into audience desires and needs in profound ways. I would agree with all of that, but would also suggest that there’s something specific to novels and their form of storytelling that was also at play in the role and success of Zahn’s Star Wars books. Of course multi-episode TV shows can expand a universe in their own ways, as we’ve seen with the recent Star Wars shows (characters from which have, tellingly, made their way into the most recent films). Yet—and I grant that this might be the literary scholar in me talking—I would argue that a novel can expand and deepen a cinematic universe in ways that no other genre can, and that it’s thus far from coincidental that it was Zahn’s Thrawn novels that first truly opened up not only the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but even the concept of an expanded universe at all. They certainly had a distinct and vital effect for this StarWarsStudier.

May Recap this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

May 26, 2022: Star Wars Studying: Yoda, Luke, and Love

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

On what the wisest Jedi Master got very wrong, and why the opposite lesson matters so much.

As the dutiful father to two Star Wars-obsessed sons, I’ve watched the prequel trilogy many more times than I would have ever chosen to on my own (once was more than enough, to be honest). If I had to pin down the precise scene that epitomizes the failings of those three films, I would point not to obvious choices like Jar Jar Binks or “I don’t like sand” (although yes and yes), but instead to this weighty conversation between Yoda and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in Revenge of the Sith. For one thing, this CGI-version of Yoda looks infinitely less real than did the original trilogy’s puppet; I know we’re talking about a puppet green alien, but the scene is meant to be hugely emotional, and the feel of the characters matters. But more importantly, Yoda’s response to and advice for Anakin in this scene are uniformly terrible; this young man is terrified of losing a loved one, and Yoda tells him that the way of the Force and Jedi mean he should be happy if those he loves dies. Even if that’s officially true, Yoda should be able to sense how much it’s the opposite of what Anakin needs to hear at this moment; that he can’t makes me second-guess his role as Jedi Master and teacher to Luke in the original trilogy as well (and thus, yes, slightly ruins my childhood).

But the thing is, Yoda isn’t just wrong here about human nature or what the immensely powerful and deeply frightened young man sitting before him desperately needs; he’s also wrong about the Force and the Jedi. My evidence? None other than Luke Skywalker, and the most important actions in the entire series to date: those that result in turning Darth Vader back to the light side, destroying the Emperor, and helping save the universe. Luke took all those actions because he still loved his father and sensed the reciprocal love in him (despite Yoda’s assertion that Jedi aren’t supposed to love), and because he didn’t want to let his father (or his sister Leia, friend Han, and other loved ones) die without trying to save him. And Darth responded in kind for the same reasons: he did in fact still love his son, and didn’t want to let him die when the Emperor was on the brink of killing him. All of these most heroic actions are driven by precisely the kinds of deep and defining emotions that Yoda had argued are antithetical to the Jedi Order—and yet who could possibly argue with Luke when he says, amidst that final confrontation with the Emperor and shortly before his father saves him, “I am a Jedi, like my fatherbefore me”?

My point here isn’t just to argue with Yoda or display the silliness of the prequels (although if you watch them as much as I have, you’ll understand both impulses, I assure you). No, my point is that the Force itself, as portrayed by the original trilogy (and almost entirely misunderstood by the prequels), is quite literally love. That might seem mushy or reductive, but I think it’s actually a great lens through which to analyze what motivates some of the most vital and heroic characters in epic fantasy stories: Sam’s love for Frodo; Severus Snape’s love for Lily (Evans) Potter; Willow Ufgood’s love for Elora Danan; and the list goes on. On the one hand, this recurring storytelling thread grounds and humanizes these fantastic stories, linking them to one of the most shared and universal elements of our humanity. But at the same time, the thread elevates love, making it into a force that can change and shape and save worlds, can defeat the most powerful evils. Seen in this light, the ubiquitous family relationships between so many characters in the Star Wars universe aren’t just coincidence or storytelling shorthand; they’re a symbolic reflection of the love that links us to one another, that “surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” A lesson Yoda, like all of us, could stand to learn.

Last StarWarsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

May 25, 2022: Star Wars Studying: Rogue One, Diversity, and War

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first epis9ode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

On two ways the standalone and standout Star Wars film pushed the envelope for the series.

In many ways, the diverse characters and casting for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) seem to parallel and extend what I said in yesterday’s post about The Force Awakens (2015). Both films feature a strong female protagonist, with Rogue’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) helping Force’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) bring the series into a new millennium of equal opportunity gender heroism. Both surround that lead actor with impressively multi-national and –ethnic supporting casts, with Rogue spotlighting Pakistani British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, Mexican actor and director Diego Luna, Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen, and Chinese actor and director Wen Jiang. And both have inspired similarly aggrieved reactions from sexist and white supremacist Star Wars “fans,” although it seems to me that the critiques of Rogue One were less prominent or loud than the prior year’s had been; perhaps the bigots had resigned themselves to the fact that this 21st century version of Star Wars is going to reflect the diverse global society in and for which it’s being created (although we’ll see how they handle an Asian American actress playing The Last Jedi’s “biggest new part”) [NOTE: I wrote that line when I first published this piece, and, well, yeah].

Yet I would argue that in one important respect Rogue One’s diversity differed from, or at the very least significantly deepened, that of Force Awakens. For whatever reason, both of the main actors in Force Awakens (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) didn’t use their natural English accents in the film, rendering their characters somewhat less diverse (or at least more ethnically neutral, let’s say) than the actors behind them. Whereas in Rogue One, Luna, Yen, and Jiang all speak English with their natural accents, opening up a window into a Star Wars universe where characters don’t just look ethnically different (although even there Rogue presents fuller diversity than any Star Wars film before it), they also sound it, at least suggesting a multi-lingual side to that universe. That might sound like a small or insignificant change, but to argue otherwise I would highlight this amazing story, shared by Luna himself on his Twitter account, of a Mexican American young woman who brought her Mexican immigrant father to see the film and then wrote about the experience on tumblr. Or I could share Luna’s own perspective on why it was important to keep his accent for the character, as a critical element to the diverse identity and universe he reflects. For those and other reasons, the accents in Rogue One represent a new side to the series, and they matter.

[SERIOUS SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] In a different but not unrelated way, I believe that Rogue One’s shifts in genre and tone from all other Star Wars films also matter. Of course “war” has been a part of the series all along, but one modified by “star,” producing a space opera or Flash Gordon serial version of war. Of course major characters/heroes have died throughout the films, but generally those deaths were of older characters whose time had come (Obi Wan, Yoda, Darth Vader/Anakin, Qui Gon), and whose deaths were thus not particularly traumatic for young audiences (Padmé being a definite exception, and Mace Windu at least a partial one; Revenge of the Sith is a pretty bleak film). Rogue One is a much grittier kind of war film, however—from the “suicide mission” sub-genre of war films, no less—and the uniformly tragic fates of all of its major heroic characters reflects that distinct genre and tone. I don’t mean to suggest that the other Star Wars films don’t have sad or dark elements, but I think it’s also telling that their young protagonists all survive; that none of Rogue One’s do is, to my mind, the precise reason why my sons have said that they love the film but “it’s really sad” (not something they’ve ever sad of any other Star Wars film, even Sith). As a result, Rogue One has brought the Star Wars universe and its audiences, perhaps especially its youthful audiences, into a very different universe and vision of war, just one more way this newest film has profoundly changed the series.

Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

May 24, 2022: Star Wars Studying: The Force Awakens and Marketing

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

Two of the things this AmericanStudier loves most about the first film in the newest Star Wars trilogy, and one that worries me a bit.

I initially wrote about the “transnational force” at the heart of the Star Wars saga more than five years ago in this space, long before John Boyega and Daisy Ridley had been cast as the leads in the new trilogy (and Lupita Nyongo’o had been cast in a role that, without spoiling too much, could be called the Yoda of that new series). I stand by my argument that the films have always been cross-cultural in important ways; but at the same time, there’s no disputing that the world of the original trilogy was extremely white (smooth-talking space pirate Lando Calrissian notwithstanding). Moreover, while Carrie Fisher’s Leia was certainly an impressive heroine in many ways, she was also, quite literally, the clichéd princess in need of rescue whose plea for help set the entire first film and trilogy in motion. So to sit next to my 10 and 8 year old sons in December 2015 while they watched a Star Wars movie in which Boyega and Ridley were the unquestionable, kickass, and entirely equal leads was, to put it mildly, a wonderful experience for this AmericanStudier. Take that, haters!

I watched The Force Awakens that first time with not only my sons, but also my Mom and Dad, and that multi-generational viewing experience was just as inspiring. While once again trying to avoid spoilers (for the three people who haven’t yet seen Force Awakens or the new trilogy), I’ll note that the film is deeply and powerfully focused on the relationships between the past and the future, including an emphasis on family bonds but also and most centrally through its pitch-perfect balance (in casting and character arcs, script and storytelling, plot and action, and much else) of the familiar and the new, of callbacks to the original films and fresh directions for the saga. In a world where my boys’ longtime favorite toys (the Skylanders) were both created within the last fifteen years and utilize an innovative gaming technology I could never have imagined as a kid (and which has spun off into app games that they played on an iPad, about every detail of which ditto), to have a cultural text that can so fully and successfully unite 1977 and 2017 is nothing short of incredible. To paraphrase E.B. White’s great “Once More to the Lake,” I wasn’t entirely sure, sitting in that theater, whether I was myself, my sons, or my parents—and that’s a feeling we should all get to experience!

My only problem with that Force Awakens theatrical experience had nothing to do with the film itself, and yet represents the one thing about it and Star Wars in the 21st century that worries me. Before the movie began, there was the usual 10 minutes of commercials (before the usual 15 minutes of trailers), and I would say that about 9 of those advertising minutes featured Star Wars tie-ins. It felt at the time (and again around the releases of all the subsequent films) like a roughly similar percentage of the TV and radio ads I encountered were part of the film’s merchandising empire. Star Wars has always had its share of associated products (writes the AmericanStudier who literally had a deal with a local store’s toy department to get a call every time a new Ewok figure was released), but it feels to me that Lucasfilm’s purchase by Disney has amplified those commercial and marketing campaigns many times over. I want to be clear that I’m extremely grateful that the company has made this new series of films (and all those aforementioned positive effects) possible. But I do worry that this all-out marketing blitz has the potential to make Star Wars into just another product, rather than the cross-cultural, multi-generational story that has endured so potently for nearly half a century.

Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, May 23, 2022

May 23, 2022: Star Wars Studying: A Cross-Cultural Force

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

On how the original Star Wars was directly influenced by a Japanese film—and, critiques of the American director notwithstanding, why that influence is a positive thing.

As the 2017 40th anniversary celebrations illustrate, few cultural texts have had a more significant and ongoing presence over the last four-and-a-half decades than George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and its many sequels, prequels, novelizations, television spinoffs, parodies, merchandising and marketing and material culture connections, animated versions, Wookie-centric Christmas specials, and the like. Because of that lasting presence, and perhaps especially because a whole generation of students and scholars (including this AmericanStudier to be sure) has grown up alongside Luke Skywalker and friends, Lucas’s prominent debt to Joseph Campbell’s analyses of heroism and mythologies has likewise been very well established and documented; which is to say, this is a pop culture text and artist whose multigenerational and cross-cultural (at least in the sense of Campbell’s ideas linking myths from multiple cultures) connections and influences seem already well known.

Far be it for me to disagree with that longstanding and very thoroughly developed assessment—did you note the ridiculously comprehensive Lucas-Campbell chart at that hyperlink?—but there’s another, also very influential and much less broadly known, source for Lucas’s first film. As this website conversation highlights, Lucas’s initial story outline for Star Wars (particularly in the story’s initial events and exposition) closely parallels Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress; Lucas would change certain events and details between that outline and the film’s screenplay, but many of the Kurosawa echoes remained very much present in the finished film, as mashups of the two movies such as this one cleverly highlight. Such mashups could be used as exhibits in a plagiarism case against Lucas, and indeed many who have noted the similarities to Fortress have done so in a critical way, arguing that at least Lucas owed Kurosawa a more overt acknowledgment of the influence as Star Wars gained in popularity and Lucas became one of the most famous and wealthiest filmmakers of all time.

Certainly I believe that Kurosawa’s film should be better known, not only because of its clear influence on Lucas’s early ideas for his own series, but also because it seems (from, admittedly, the handful of clips I have seen and the descriptions I have read) to be an interesting if minor work from one of cinema’s most prolific and talented artists. Yet far from serving as an indictment of Lucas or his film, this additional influence highlights, to my mind, just how genuinely and impressively American Star Wars really is: inspired in equal measure by centuries of cross-cultural mythology and a Japanese film, with the seminal fantasy series by a British author thrown in for good measure; starring young American actors and some of England’s most established screen veterans; shamelessly cribbing from the styles and stunts of early serials and pop culture classics like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers; with all those elements thrown into a space opera blender and turned into a hugely unique and engaging entertainment. Lucas had called his first, much more grounded and local and historically nostalgic, film American Graffiti (1973)—but it’s Star Wars that really exemplifies the cross-cultural, multi-genre, intertextual, inspiring mélange that is American culture and art.

Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Saturday, May 21, 2022

May 21-22, 2022: Aviation Histories: Amelia Earhart

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of aviation histories, leading up to this special weekend post on the myths and even more inspiring realities of Earhart!]

As I wrote in Wednesday’s post, Amelia Earhart’s solo flight is, like Earhart herself, justly famed. But it’s also a bit of a legend at this point; and as is so often the case with our collective legends, the multi-layered realities behind and around it are even more interesting and inspiring. Here are a few:

1)      The First Flight: Four years before she made her daring solo journey, Earhart was a passenger on another transatlantic trip, accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot Louis Gordon as they flew from Newfoundland to South Wales on June 17-18, 1928 (just a year after Lindbergh’s famous flight). When the three returned to the US in early July, they received a ticker-tape parade in New York and a reception at the White House. Earhart was invited to take part in this historic flight thanks to the efforts of a number of other influential individuals, from aviation ally Amy Phipps Guest to publisher (and Earhart’s future husband) George Palmer Putnam. None of these origin points nor influences take anything away from Earhart’s later solo flight—but they do remind us that any individual achievement is also connected to communal histories that need our collective memories as well.

2)      Fellow Aviator Friends: All of those aforementioned individuals were friends and allies of Earhart’s, but as her career continued to unfold she also became close to a number of other female aviators. Many of them were part of an organization that Earhart herself helped found: known as The Ninety-Nines due to their original number of members, this group started in 1929 and Earhart became its first president in 1930. She also became a mentor to younger female aviators, as illustrated by her relationship with Jackie Cochran, the talented pilot who would go on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. And perhaps Earhart’s most interesting relationship was with one of my earlier subjects in this week’s series, Eleanor Roosevelt; after flying with Earhart Roosevelt got a student flying permit, indicative of just how inspiring Earhart was on that notoriously individual and strong-willed friend.

3)      Bessie Coleman: As far as I can tell, Earhart wasn’t friends with Bessie Coleman, which I’m sure was due in part to racism (not Earhart’s, but the collective racism of 1920s America that created such a segregated society in every way) but also perhaps a little as well to competition, as Coleman received her pilot’s license two years earlier than Earhart (but in France, as American organizations wouldn’t give her one). I want to be as clear as I can that I’m not accusing Earhart of anything here, but rather suggesting that, as with every layer of American history and society, there are African American figures and stories that we’ve purposefully forgotten and that demand a place alongside our more familiar ones. So as we commemorate Earhart’s feat this weekend, let’s make sure to remember and celebrate Coleman as well.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Friday, May 20, 2022

May 20, 2022: Aviation Histories: Sully

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

On the quiet lessons of an averted disaster, and the recent film that didn’t quite learn them.

No disaster is a good disaster (as I traced at length in this series inspired by the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire and crash), but there’s something particularly frightening and horrific about an airplane crash. Perhaps it’s because the very act of flying in a man-made machine still feels (at least to this AmericanStudier) somewhat artificial and even unbelievable, and thus that crashes (rare as they certainly are) feel always possible or close. Perhaps it’s because, compared to most natural disasters or other kinds of transporation accidents, a plane crash feels so assuredly fatal for all involved. Perhaps it’s due to all the continuing mysteries associated with plane crashes, even in an era when we believe we understand technology so well: the Bermuda Triangle, the disappearance of flights like the recent and still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, those infamous black boxes and the stories they do and don’t tell. In any case, plane crashes are uniquely unnerving (to say the least)—which is why, when the actions of a heroic pilot like Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger can help avert a potential crash and save the lives of all on board, they feel particularly impressive.

The details of Sully’s rescue are pretty well known: he was piloting a US Airways flight out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009 when a flock of Canada geese collided with his plane, damaging both engines; Sully and air traffic controllers discussed returning to LaGuardia or trying for New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, but decided both options were too risky and opted for an emergency water landing in the Hudson river; he pulled off that very tricky landing and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. What’s perhaps less well known is that Sully wasn’t just a pilot with nearly 30 years of commercial flying experience; he was also a very experienced instructor and investigator, having provided aerial combat training for pilots during the Vietnam War, and then serving during his commercial flying career as a pilot instructor, an Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and accident investigator, and an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. All of which is to say, Sully’s decisions and actions in January 2009 weren’t simply the result of quick thinking or good instincts or bravery (although all those factors were in play); they were also the product of decades of instruction and training, of investigations and expertise in both aviation and crashes. None of that is to take away from what was required of Sully at that particular moment—but I would argue that a career of teaching and learning provided the impressive preparation and tools that Sully was then able to utilize in the most significant minutes of his career and life.

I’ll admit to not having had the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s recent film Sully (2016), starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, but from everything I’ve seen and read about the film, it seems to have not taken that lesson of the “Miracle on the Hudson” to heart much at all. Perhaps believing that Sully’s crash landing was either too well known or too anti-climactic to provide sufficient dramatic tension for the film, Eastwood and his screenwriter Todd Komarnicki apparently (again, going on reviews and responses here—feel free to offer corrections in comments!) decided to turn National Transportation Safety Board crash investigators (ie, folks in the same role Sully had performed many times) into villains, out to second-guess Sully’s actions and to threaten and potentially destroy his reputation and career. Besides ramping up the dramatic tension, this choice aligns the film with Eastwood’s overarching perspective as a filmmaker (and, it seems, a person), which often pits heroic individual figures against frustrating and even vindictive institutions and bureaucracies. Clint’s of course entitled to feel however he pleases, and to tell the stories he wants as an artist—but to my mind, the story of Sully and his heroic rescue reveals precisely the opposite lesson: that institutions and communal efforts can help prepare us for the hardest moments, not in opposition to what we can and must do as individuals but as a vital complement to and training for those occasions for bravery and heroism. Now that I think about it, I think that’d make for a pretty good story too.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Thursday, May 19, 2022

May 19, 2022: Aviation Histories: Howard Hughes

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

On how two acclaimed films remember the iconoclastic aviator, and how to complement both narratives.

Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator (2004), starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, seeks to portray Hughes’s roller-coaster life in the most blockbuster epic way possible. Despite the title, and despite a number of bravura aviation action sequences, Scorcese’s film is no more about Hughes’s pioneering aeronautic achievements than it is about his film productions, his numerous liaisons with Hollywood actresses and celebrities, his descent into eccentricity and mental illness, or any other individual stage in this multi-act drama. As he does so many of his heroes and protagonists, even those who don’t seem to deserve any response other than criticism or even condemnation, Scorcese clearly sees Hughes as an embodiment of the best and worst of the American Dream, of the grandest kinds of triumphs and successes and of the cost and pain that they often bring with them. DiCaprio is impressive in the part as he always is, capturing each stage of Hughes’s life from boyhood ambitions through the worst moments of his final years, but to this AmericanStudier the film feels like one of those sweeping biopics that includes almost everything and adds up to nearly nothing. I don’t imagine many viewers would come away learning anything specific or in-depth about Hughes as, y’know, an aviator.

Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), featuring Jason Robards as Hughes, couldn’t be more distinct in either overall tone or its portrayal of Hughes. Based on the true story (or at least true claims, although they have since received some validation) of a Nevada man who supposedly rescued Hughes after a desert car crash, befriended the aging and iconoclastic tycoon, and ended up receiving a controversial and still contested place in Hughes’s will, Demme’s film is a quiet and quirky character study, one focused much more on Paul Le Mat’s Melvin and his rocky life and relationships, with Robards’ Hughes as a sort of mysterious guardian angel and potential deux ex machina. As such, Robards’ Hughes is defined purposefully and entirely by his eccentric nature, as a man with virtually no remaining human connections sitting on a vast fortune that (due to precisely that eccentricity) might well end up with a schlub like Melvin Dummar. How Hughes got to that point and that fortune isn’t within the film’s purview, and so neither are his aviation achievements; Hughes the reclusive and mysterious billionaire is the character Demme’s film requires, and one that wouldn’t function as neatly if we heard about his high-flying exploits.

Both films are of course free (well, free with the permission of the Hughes estate, I assume, but that’s neither my business nor my concern here) to use and portray Howard Hughes however they see fit. And it’s fair to say that both the sweeping epic story of Hughes’s life and the eccentric details of his final years would be of more interest to audiences than would individual moments of aviation advances. But on the other hand, some of those aviation advances are pretty impressive—most especially Hughes’s record-breaking July 1938 around-the-world flight, which beat the prior record for such a journey by nearly four days (Hughes achieved the feat in 91 hours). Moreover, alongside such aeronautic accomplishments that rival (or at least approach) those of Charles Lindbergh and his peers, Hughes was also a highly successful aviation designer and engineer, with his work in advancing aviation technology deemed so significant as to win him (among many other awards) a 1939 Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world.” While I certainly wouldn’t entirely equate Hughes with the Wright Brothers, I would say that he’s further toward them on the spectrum of innovation and achievement than many other pioneering aviators. Which might not make for the most exciting epic or intimate character study, but is a history worth remembering as well.

Last history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

May 18, 2022: Aviation Histories: Eleanor Roosevelt and Tuskegee

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

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

As I’ll write more about this weekend, 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. Next history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

May 17, 2022: Aviation Histories: Charles Lindbergh

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

On how history can overshadow history, and why we should partly resist that trend.

I think it’s fair to say that Charles Lindbergh, one of the true aviation pioneers in American history, is remembered in our collective narratives at least as well (if not, indeed, much more fully) for two stories that had nothing whatsoever to do with his flying abilities and achievements. First, there was the horrifying March 1932 abduction and murder of Lindbergh (and wife Anne Spencer Morrow)’s 20-month old son Charles Augustus, a true crime story that gripped the nation both for the 10 weeks that Charles was missing and again after the 1934 arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann (a prosecution that led to a new law deeming kidnapping across state lines a federal offense). And then, less than a decade later, there was Lindbergh’s 1938 acceptance of a German medal of honor from Nazi leader Hermann Goering, and his subsequent opposition to U.S. entrance into World War II through his leadership of the American First Committee, an openly isolationist, xenophobic, and anti-semitic organization. Although Lindbergh would go on to fly numerous missions once the U.S. had entered the war, after these dual 1930s histories he would always at the very least remain connected to such broader cultural, social, and political issues alongside his aviation advances and successes.

That’s not particularly fair when it comes to the true crime story—not only because it tells us nothing about Lindbergh as a historical figure or a man, but also because placing that story too much at the center of our collective memories seems to replicate the grisly fascination with a missing and then dead child (one of far too many such true crime fascinations in our cultural history). But the America First history is a far different story. Lindbergh’s association with—really his leading, spokesperson status in—that movement reflects deeply his attitudes and beliefs, his close connection to the Nazi regime in Germany, his actions and activism on behalf of an exclusionary vision of American identity and community. While of course those beliefs of his may have evolved over time, and we can and should consider that question (and thus his World War II service, among other factors) as part of this conversation, the late 1930s and early 1940s were a pivotal moment in American and world history, and Lindbergh aligned himself very fully and vocally with some of the darkest and most destructive forces in that moment. We can’t possibly remember his life and public career without putting that alignment front and center, not only for the sake of an accurate assessment of the man’s role in and influence on America but also because “America First” has, like anti-semitism, returned with a vengeance in our present moment.

Yet at the same time, there’s another way of looking at Lindbergh’s America First alignment in relationship to his aviation achievements. Lindbergh was far from the only isolationist and anti-semitic voice in early 1940s America; the St. Louis and its Jewish refugee passengers were turned away by forces far bigger and more widespread than Charles Lindbergh, after all. On the other hand, Lindbergh was quite literally the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean (on May 20-21, 1927, ironically in a plane named The Spirt of St. Louis), a pioneering and courageous aviation achievement that distinguished him from all of his peers and contemporaries and changed the course of transportation history. History isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; the courageous moment doesn’t cancel out the horrific one, and we can and should work to remember both as part of Lindbergh’s story. But it’s also important that we remember America First and its bigoted and exclusionary attitudes as a far too widespread phenomenon, one certainly exemplified by but by no means limited to Charles Lindbergh. Whereas when Lindbergh boarded that plane in May 1927 and set off across the Atlantic, he was both literally and figuratively alone, and that’s worth remembering as well.

Next history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Monday, May 16, 2022

May 16, 2022: Aviation Histories: The Wright Brothers

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

Three lesser-known stories of the brothers who helped change transportation and the world.

1)      A Printing Press: In 1888, fifteen years before their pioneering flight and when Orville was still just a junior in high school, the brothers developed their first technological innovation, a printing press that they built themselves. They used it not only to publish their own newspapers in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio (first a weekly [West Side News] and then briefly a daily [The Evening Item]), but also produced publications for other friends and locals. One of them was a high school classmate of Orville’s and a blossoming young writer and poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar; the brothers’ printed his newspaper the Dayton Tattler for a time. Such personal and historical details not only remind us that the Wright Brothers moved through many stages of invention and profession before their aviation pinnacles, but also help situate them in their settings, both of place and time.

2)      A Bicycle Shop: Like many talented inventors, the Wright Brothers were never satisfied to stay in one stage or field for long; just four years after they opened their press, they had moved on, opening their bicycle repair and sales shop the Wright Cycle Exchange in 1892. As detailed at wonderful length in Kate Milford’s historical YA novel The Boneshaker (which features a Wright Brothers bicycle in a prominent role), bicycles had become something of a craze in this period, and the brothers quickly realized that they could turn their technological prowess to designing new and improved bikes. By 1896, the Wright Cycle Company was producing its own brand of bikes, machines which would of course also feature prominently in their later aeronautical efforts. But while this business and pursuit offer a direct throughline toward the machine that would propel the brothers into the air at Kitty Hawk, it also links them to a transportation trend and history that were far more widespread and influential throughout the 1890s and well into the early 1900s.

3)      A Museum Feud: The interesting and complex histories didn’t stop with that 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, of course. One of the most compelling was the brothers’ multi-decade feud with the Smithsonian Institution, thanks to a rivalry with the institution’s secretary Samuel Langley over whose manned flying machine should be considered the first successful model. The museum chose to display Langley’s Aerodrome (which he had never gotten off the ground) much more prominently than the Wright Brothers’ model, and the brothers (especially Orville, as Wilbur died far too young in 1912) retaliated by lending their invention to the London Science Museum in 1928. There it remained until Orville’s death in 1948, when a long-negotiated truce allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the flyer and return it to the United States for the first time in decades. Among the many salient lessons from this controversial history is a reminder that museums are living and evolving spaces, reflecting the conflicts and struggles of their societies as much as their ideals and innovations. It’s hard to imagine an American Air & Space Museum without the Wright Brothers—but for a long time, thanks to the tangled history of aviation, that was precisely the case.

Next history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?