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Thursday, June 30, 2022

June 30, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Playing Indian

[This summer my sons return (after a frustrating Covid hiatus last year) to their favorite sleepaway camp. As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying! Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the summer camp experiences, stories, and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers.]

On the camp tradition that embodies a troubling American trend, and what we can do about it.

I’ve tried from time to time, mostly in the posts collected under the category “Scholarly Reviews,” to cite works of AmericanStudies scholarship that have been particularly significant and inspiring to me. But it’s fair to say that I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll keep trying to find ways to highlight other such works as the blog moves forward into its second (!) decade. One such work is Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998), a book which moves from the Boston Tea Party and Tammany Hall to late 20th century hobbyists and New Age believers (among many other subjects) to trace the enduring American fascination with dressing up as and performing exaggerated “Indian” identities in order to construct and engage with individual, communal, and national identity. In one of his later chapters, Deloria considers Cold War-era practices of “playing Indian” through which children’s social experiences and burgeoning American identities were often delineated—and right alongside the Boy Scouts and “cowboys and Indians” play, Deloria locates and analyzes summer camps.

In the example cited in that last hyperlink, Missouri’s Camp Lake of the Woods held an annual “Indian powwow” for its campers—the tradition dates back at least to the 1940s, and apparently continued well into the late 20th century. (I’m assuming it no longer occurs, although I haven’t found evidence one way or another.) By all accounts, including Deloria’s research and analysis, such summer camp uses of “Indian” images and performances were widespread, if not even ubiquitous, as camps rose to their height of national prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Even if we leave aside the long and troubling history that Deloria traces and in which these particular performances are unquestionably located, the individual choice remains, to my mind, equally troubling: this is childhood fun created out of the use of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, community-building through blatant “othering” of fellow Americans, and a particularly oppressed and vulnerable community at that; to paraphrase what I said in my post on the racist “Red Man” scene in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), I can’t imagine these camps asking their campers to “play” any other ethnic or racial group. The performances were obviously not intended to be hurtful, but it’s difficult, especially in light of Deloria’s contextualizing, to read them in any other way.

So what, you might ask? Well for one thing, we could far better remember these histories—both the specific histories of playing Indian in summer camps, and the broader arc of playing Indian as a foundational element in the construction of American identity and community across the centuries; Deloria’s book would help us better remember on both levels. For another thing, it would be worth considering what it means that so many American children experienced and took part in these performances, how that might impact their perspectives on not only Native Americans, but ethnic and cultural “others” more generally. And for a third thing, it would also be worth examining our contemporary summer camps and other childhood communities—certainly the most overt such racism has been almost entirely eliminated from those space; but what stereotypes and images, performances and “others,” remain? Summer camps are fun and games, but they’re also as constitutive of identities as any influential places and material cultures can be—as Deloria reminds us, play is also dead serious, and demands our attention and anaylsis.

Last camp context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

June 29, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Jewish Summer Camps

[This week my sons return to their favorite sleepaway camp, this time with my older son as a Counselor-in-Training! As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying.]

On ethnicity, community, and the preservation and revision of tradition.

In the nine first-year writing courses I taught as an adjunct at both Boston University and UMass Boston, I focused on one aspect or another of immigration and American identity; as a result, I found that the conversations and work in those courses circled around again and again to some key topics and themes. Many were what you would expect: the old and new worlds; assimilation and acculturation; hyphens and hybridity; multi-generational continuities and changes. But nearly as frequent were our discussions of ethnic communities and neighborhoods in the U.S., the areas early scholars of immigration dubbed ethnic enclaves—we talked a good deal about the limitations and strengths of such enclaves, the ways in which they can on the one hand foster isolation and separation (and even ghetto-ization), sub-standard living conditions and inequal schools, prejudice and ignorance toward immigrant groups, and other issues; but at the same time can preserve specific cultural identities and customs and languages, build community and support across generations, become potent new world homes for immigrant communities.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following the era’s sizeable waves of Jewish immigration to the United States, many of those arrivals settled in such ethnic enclaves, most famously in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (as described at great length in early 20th century literary works such as Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky [1917] and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers [1925]). While some of those neighborhoods and communities persist to a lesser degree, they have mostly dissipated over the subsequent century, as Jewish Americans have spread out across the country. Yet like members of most ethnic and cultural, as well as most religious, communities, many Jewish Americans have worked for continuity despite these historical and social changes, particularly by passing along customs and beliefs, traditions and ideals, to their younger generations. Education and activities, schools and community and cultural centers, have provided vehicles for such preservation of culture—but another, complex, and I believe more easily overlooked, such vehicle has been the Jewish summer camp.

For well more than half a century, Jewish schoolchildren (and of course some non-Jewish schoolchildren) have spent portions of their summers at sites such as Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah, Camp Woodmere in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and New Hampshire’s Camp Tevya, among many others. In many ways these camps have facilitated and continue to facilitate a preservation of Jewish culture and community across the generations: with Hebrew and Talmud instruction, historical and social lessons, and other communal activities and connections. Yet at the same time, if we parallel such camps with those attended by American schoolchildren from all cultures and communities (and it seems clear that these camps have also featured all of the stereotypical camp activities: boating and hiking, capture the flag and campfires, and so on), we could argue the opposite: that they have offered another avenue through which Jewish American kids have connected to a broader, non-denominational American society and experience, one shared by all their peers. A tension between ethnicity and acculturation, tradition and revision, the Talmud and campfire sing-alongs—what could be more American than such dualities?

Next camp context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

June 28, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Hello Muddah

[This week my sons return to their favorite sleepaway camp, this time with my older son as a Counselor-in-Training! As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying.]

On the very American afterlife of a classic camp (sorry) song.

In 1963, comedy writer and TV producer Allan Sherman wrote (along with musician and songwriter Lou Busch) the comic novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).” The hyperbolic lyrics were based on the less-than-ideal experiences of Sherman’s son Robert at New York’s Camp Champlain (Robert had such a miserable camp experience that he was eventually expelled!), and captured pitch-perfectly both the exaggerations and extremes (and vicissitudes) of a young person’s perspective and the mythic presence of summer camp in our childhood and national imagination. The song was such a hit (occupying the #2 spot on the Billboard singles list for three August weeks) that Sherman wrote and performed a sequel on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson less than a year later, cementing the song’s status as the nation’s unofficial summer camp anthem.

It was in 1965, however, that the multi-faceted American story of “Hello Muddah” began to unfold in full. In that year Milton Bradley released a Camp Granada board game, advertised by a TV commercial featuring yet another version of the song performed by Sherman himself. Moreover, the 1965-66 TV schedule featured the first and only season of Camp Runamuck, an NBC sitcom based on the song (including character names and plot details drawn from the lyrics). Those cultural and material extensions of the song have been amplified, in the decades since, by a children’s book, an acclaimed Off-Broadway musical revue, and numerous pop culture allusions and references. Indeed, while the original version of the song continues to exist (even in the pre-YouTube days of my childhood I remember hearing it somewhere), it’s fair to say that “Hello Muddah” has become in many ways more of a brand than a text, revised and reframed and made new for all these distinct cultural and commercial purposes.

That process, by which an individual and isolated artistic work gets adopted into the multi-faceted, multi-media mélange that is American popular culture and society, is anything but new, as my Dad’s pioneering website Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture makes clear. But as that website itself illustrates, this kind of American cultural evolution has become significantly more visible, and more exactly recordable and traceable, in our 21st century digital moment. I won’t lie, I didn’t know anything about the “Hello Muddah” board game and TV show until I started researching this post—but now they, like the many permutations of the song itself (which I have a dim memory of singing during my own, thankfully far less extreme and far more positive, experience at Virginia’s overnight Camp Friendship as a middle schooler in the late 1980s), have become part of my own evolving American perspective and identity.

Next camp context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

Monday, June 27, 2022

June 27, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Camp Virginia

[This week my sons return to their favorite sleepaway camp, this time with my older son as a Counselor-in-Training! As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying!]

On the unique summer camp without which there’d be no AmericanStudier.

The van was, to the best of my recollection, entirely ordinary. Just a van. The movies that we watched while driving in that van were, although I can only remember one specific title (the forgotten ‘80s classic Space Camp [1986]), nothing earth-shattering either. Just mediocre kids’ entertainment. The lunches that we ate at our various destinations, likewise. The counselor to camper ratio was, while probably well within state requirements, nothing special; I think there were around 12 of us at a time, and just the one counselor. As summer camps go, these basic details might make this one sound pretty average at best. But Camp Virginia most definitely changed my life.

Over the years a number of folks have asked me what inspired my dual passions for American literature and American history, and in my answer I often focus on a couple core elements of my childhood: being raised by two parents who cared deeply about reading and writing; and growing up in Virginia, surrounded by all that history (especially, at least in what was highlighted during my childhood, of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras). But when it comes to the latter influence, of course many tens of thousands of kids grew up in Virginia during the same period as I, and I doubt that many of them were similarly inspired by its treasure troves of historical goodness. And while my parents without question would have introduced me to those troves, the most foundational introductions were those provided by Mr. Kirby. Ronald Kirby was my fourth-grade teacher at Charlottesville’s Johnson Elementary School, and I’m sure he did a great job in that role, but for me he’ll always be the founder, sole counselor, chauffeur, lunch maker, movie selector and starter, 7-11 bathroom demander (a long and funny story that I can’t possibly replicate here, but it’s a good one, trust me), and above all guide and teacher and historian and mentor, of Camp Virginia.

Every summer (well, I did it for two straight summers, but I think he ran it every summer for many years before and after that as well), Mr. Kirby would offer week-long camps, each one focused on a different historical topic (mainly the Revolution and the Civil War, but I imagine there were variations and other topics too). Each day we’d drive to a couple of historical sites, and while I do still (kinda) remember the van and the movies and the lunches, it’s those visits and sites that really stand out for me. But not even the sites, many of which I’ve been to numerous other times as well. It’s the aura that stands out for me, the ambience, the ways that Mr. Kirby could, with a well-chosen anecdote or detail, with attention to a particular spot or artifact or story, with his very enthusiasm and passion and interest, undimmed after however many years and visits and campers, make the history come alive for me and, in so doing, make me come more fully alive as a student, a historian, a Virginian, an American. It’s no exaggeration to say that at the end of those weeks I was hooked, was destined for a life (in whatever profession or discipline) in which history would always be a major destination.

Next camp context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 25, 2022

June 25-26, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Vegas in Song

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’ve AmericanStudied Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas and a handful of other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to this weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On five great tunes to win (or, yeah, lose) it all to.

1)      Elvis Presley, “Viva Las Vegas” (1964): I wrote about the illustrative film on Thursday, but the lyrics to Presley’s song capture the city’s allure and realities alike quite vividly as well. Perhaps never more so than in this couplet from the final verse: “If it costs me my very last dime/If I wind up broke, oh well I’ll always remember that I had a swingin’ time.”

2)      Gram Parsons, “Ooh Las Vegas” (1973): Released posthumously after Parsons’ tragic death at the age of 26 from drug and alcohol abuse at the age, “Ooh” would thus always have been tinged by the sadder side of its titular city. But in case that weren’t enough, the first verse goes: “Ooh Las Vegas, ain’t no place for a poor boy like me/ Ooh Las Vegas, ain’t no place for a poor boy like me/Every time I hit your crystal city/You know you’re gonna make a wreck out of me.”

3)      Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Las Vegas” (1993): Both Presley and Parsons’ songs are from the perspective of a visitor to Vegas; but as I wrote on Friday, the city is truly defined by those who work there (both in and out of the tourist trade). Crow’s anthem, one of many stellar tracks on her debut album, captures that working world perfectly in lines like “I quit my job as a dancer at the Lido des Girls/Dealing blackjack until one or two/Such a muddy line between the things you want/And the things you have to do.”

4)      Sara Bareilles, “Vegas” (2007): A track from her own, equally stellar debut album, Bareilles’ “Vegas” isn’t just a return to the visitor pursuing dreams theme—it’s one where “Vegas” is used even more overtly as a symbolic stand-in for anywhere “where dreams would be” (the song also namechecks New York/Broadway, Mexico, and “sail[ing] the ocean” as other such dream-destinations). But it’s even more interesting as a reflection that nobody can get there alone, with the chorus’ oft-repeated question, “Can you get me to Vegas?”

5)      Brandon Flowers, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” (2010): The Killers’ lead singer is (like Friday’s subject Andre Agassi) a famous native son of Vegas, and as a result a number of the band’s songs have at least implicitly referenced the city. But it was with the opening track of his solo debut record that Flowers really turned his attention fully to his hometown (attention that most of the album would continue), quoting the famous sign in the process. The song is an interesting mixture of the ideals and the realities, the glitzy dreams and the painful truths, a defining duality never more clearly captured than in Flowers’ chorus: “Las Vegas/Give us your dreamers, your harlots, and your sins/Las Vegas/Didn’t nobody tell you the house will always win?”

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas songs, contexts, histories, or stories you’d highlight?

Friday, June 24, 2022

June 24, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Andre Agassi

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On the tennis great who has embodied both sides of the city.

Tennis legend Andre Agassi (1970- ) is more than one of the most famous people ever to have been born in Las Vegas; he’s also a figure who has, across the very distinct stages of his life and career, embodied the seemingly contradictory duality at Vegas’ heart. When Agassi broke onto the tennis scene as a teenager in the late 80s, he was the epitome of glitz and cool—granted it was only an advertising catchphrase, but the “Image is everything” of Agassi’s famous Canon ads certainly seemed to reflect the way in which his hair, his clothes, his style, his dating life, his image felt paramount, perhaps even more so than the undeniable tennis skills that had made him famous. If ever an American athlete has looked like a walking advertisement for the allure of Las Vegas, it would have to be this youthful native son in all his late 1980s and early 1990s glory.

Youthful glory never lasts, however, and (fortunately) image isn’t everything. By 1997, Agassi’s career had reached a profound low point, including injuries, a failed drug test (caused, he later admitted, by experimentation with crystal meth), a tabloid-friendly failed marriage, and a drop to 141 in the international rankings. No amount of glitz or glamor would be sufficient to pull an athlete back from that kind of hole—only serious, sustained hard work can accomplish that. And work is what Agassi did, on a brutal new fitness regimen and on the Challenger circuit (a tennis tour for professional players outside of the top 50). Not only did he get back to his prior level of success, but he far exceeded it—before 1997 Agassi had won three total major tournaments, and between 1999 and 2003 he won five of them, including the 1999 French Open (after being down 2 sets to 0 in the final) to complete the rare career Grand Slam. From his work ethic to his short hair to his marriage with low-key tennis great Steffi Graf, every aspect of Agassi’s second stage seemed designed to directly undercut the “Image is everything” mantra.

And here’s the thing—Vegas’ image isn’t everything either. I know most of my posts this week have focused on various sides and layers to that image, from organized crime to sin, with idealized dreams of wealth and romance on the other end of the spectrum. But Las Vegas is the 26th most populous city in the US, with a 2020 population of about 650,000 (and more than 2.2 million in the greater metropolitan area), and those residents are real people, not glitzy simulacra. If many of them do work in and around the Strip and the tourism trade in one way or another, that only amplifies my point—that behind the glamorous façade are real people, working hard to keep it all running as smoothly as it appears. The Strip is part of the real world as well, of course, as was the teenage Andre Agassi—but I’d argue that the most genuine Las Vegas is these residents, just as the most authentic Andre Agassi was the grown man who cut his hair, battled all the way back from all those low points, and went on to achieve a far more meaningful American Dream.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

June 23, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Vegas Films

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On what we can learn about the city from a handful of feature films.

1)      Viva Las Vegas (1964): I can’t lie, Elvis Presley films have always seemed to be to exist as vehicles for, well, Elvis Presley, as well as for specific songs (for example, the performance of “Viva Las Vegas” in this movie is certainly impressive, but Presley’s character is supposed to be a race car driver, not a musician!). Moreover, the screenplay for this film was apparently written in 11 days, before which time there had been no Vegas connection whatsoever in the planned movie. Yet despite those factors, I’d say Viva represents an early and striking image of Las Vegas as the place where dreams come true, an enduring, idealized counterpoint to the Sin City symbolism I wrote about in yesterday’s post.

2)      Honeymoon in Vegas (1992): Those dreams aren’t just financial or individual, of course—they are also romantic, as illustrated by the city’s ubiquitous quickie wedding chapels. Of the many films that explore the city’s romantic allure (including Viva, with Ann-Margret central to Presley’s character’s dreams), the James Caan-Nicolas Cage-Sarah Jessica Parker-starring Honeymoon in Vegas stands out because it utilizes Las Vegas iconography so fully—right up to a conclusion featuring a pack of skydiving Elvis impersonators! Cage’s character has a fear of skydiving but goes through with it for love, which parallel’s the film’s overall message about the interconnected power of love and Las Vegas (he promised his mother on her deathbed he would never marry, but is willing to do so in Vegas).

3)      Leaving Las Vegas (1995): Just three years later, Cage would star in one of the bleakest Vegas films (and American films period) ever released. Leaving Las Vegas does feature a central romance and one potently connected to the city at that, as Cage’s depressed alcoholic writer Ben Sanderson meets and falls in love with Elisabeth Shue’s cynical prostitute Sera. But without spoiling all the details, I’ll simply say that the film’s romance ends just as tragically as do these two characters’ individual arcs—and while tragedy isn’t limited to any one setting, in this case the tragedies do feel interwoven with the excesses and horrors that lie beneath the city’s glamorous façade.

4)      Showgirls (1995): From Oscar-winning tragedy to Razzie-winning farce, AmericanStudies really does contain multitudes. I’m not gonna try to rehabilitate the reputation of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, truly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (and featuring a central performance from another Elizabeth, Berkley, that is, let’s say, less good than Shue’s). But I think many of those badnesses do directly correlate with the city in which every second of the film’s action takes place (Berkley’s Nomi arrives in Vegas at the start and departs it at the conclusion): ridiculously over the top and cheesy and fake and yet impossible to turn one’s eyes away from, even as we know we’re throwing our money away on something thoroughly debauched and debased and destructive (at least to our sense of good taste, if not indeed to our dignity).

5)      21 (2008): The Vegas heist thriller 21 is a much much better film, but is problematic for two distinct and even more troubling reasons: it “whitewashed” many of the real people on whom its story is based, casting white actors to play Asian American figures; and it stars the now-disgraced sexual predator Kevin Spacey (although at least he plays a despicable villain). The first reason in particular might warrant staying away from the film and reading the source material, Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House (2003), instead. And in any case, both these stories, like all the Vegas-centered heist and con tales (of which there are many), reveal a deep-seated collective desire to take down the house, despite the oft-repeated reality that the house always wins. Both of those ideas have a great deal to tell us about not just Vegas, but all of America.

Last Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

June 22, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Sin City

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On a necessary challenge to our Puritanical roots, and how it can go too far.

The iconic journalist and legendary quipper H.L. Mencken once wrote that Puritanism can be defined as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (which has sometimes been adapted into “may be having a good time”). While I believe it’s easy to oversimplify the Puritans, a multi-generational transnational community that featured a variety of perspectives and ideas to be sure, all you have to do is look at the way they responded to Thomas Morton and his Maypole of Merrymount to recognize that yes, they had some problems with fun (a subject about which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote pitch-perfectly in his short story on Morton and that problematic pole). While we’re of course talking events that transpired nearly 400 years ago, many of the Puritans’ more extreme fun-repressing laws remain on the books up here in New England, and as that hyperlinked Yankee Magazine article indicates even have the occasional effect on our day to day lives in the 21st century.

Beyond those regionally specific laws, it’s also fair to say that a culture which originated in part with the Puritans—and I do mean in part; I hope you all know how much I would disagree and have disagreed in print with the idea that the Puritans are the origin point for America—has had some issues with fun and “sin” over the centuries. It’s impossible to understand the decade-long travesty that was Prohibition without this context, for example; I would say that it’s equally impossible to understand our aversion to sex and nudity in media (compared in particular to our widespread acceptance for violence in media) without grappling with these Puritanical influences. All of which is to say, it’s quite striking that this same nation features a major metropolitan area in which gambling and prostitution are legal (compared to the rest of the country at least), in which free alcoholic beverages flow as freely as the Fountains of Bellagio, a community which has from its earliest moments more than earned the moniker Sin City. The Mathers would no doubt roll over eternally in their graves at the thought, and that’s an effect this AmericanStudier is okay with.

At the same time, there’s a single moment from my one and only visit to Vegas (my family began and ended a Southwestern National Parks trip in the city during my 7th grade year) that has always stood out to me as an embodiment of the destructive downsides when such pleasures are taken too far. I wrote about it in that hyperlinked post, but to quickly recap: we briefly entered a casino, and in our few minutes there, I saw a woman win thousands of dollars at a slot machine and immediately (and I do mean immediately—I don’t even recall her taking a moment to celebrate) begin putting those quarters back into the machine. I’m not suggesting that such excesses are always or necessarily present in Vegas, but I think even the unofficial slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” depicts a place where “sin” is free of consequence. Whereas the best way to enjoy pleasures is to make them part of our lives, not treat them as something which can be enjoyed separately and then forgotten entirely. Not sure that’s any healthier than the Puritan view, ultimately.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

June 21, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: The Godfather and Casino

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On the important differences in how two gangster films portray the city.

Moe Greene, an important minor character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), was loosely inspired by yesterday’s subject, Bugsy Siegel. Greene is killed not in a Los Angeles home but in his Las Vegas hotel and casino (part of an orchestrated series of such murders that conclude the film, as that clip depicts), and not for allegedly stealing from the mob but for standing in the way of fellow mob boss Michael Corleone’s attempts to buy into the Vegas scene. But those changes between the real-life Siegel and the fictional Greene only amplify the film’s depiction of Las Vegas as an extension of the Corleone crime family’s world, another setting ruled by mob bosses who represent adversaries and obstacles that Michael has to overcome as he ascends to his father’s title and throne (a process that only deepens in The Godfather, Part II, in the present of which Michael has moved the family west to more thoroughly dominate that Vegas world). Audiences occasionally see the more glamorous sides of Vegas in the Godfather films, but they are clearly a façade behind which the criminal reality is always clearly visible.

Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), the central character of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), was apparently based on a different Las Vegas gangster who became prominent two decades after Siegel’s death, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. But Scorsese’s Rothstein sure has a lot in common with Siegel as well: a Jewish kid from New York who moves west and to Vegas on behalf of the mob, gains control of a hotel and casino, and is eventually killed by his fellow mobsters due at least in part to his relationship with a Vegas socialite (Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna). As those plot details suggests, and as anyone even vaguely familiar with Scorsese’s body of work will be unsurprised to hear, Casino emphasizes the connections between Vegas and the mob even more fully than do the Godfather films, not only through Rothstein but also and even more fully through his violent criminal frenemy and the film’s third main character, the Mafia wiseguy Nicky Santoro (played by Scorsese favorite Joe Pesci). Yet at the same time, I’m not sure any film has made the glittering façade of Las Vegas look more glamorous and alluring than does Casino, never more so than in its justifiably famous tracking shots.

That final point is consistent with my overall critique of Scorsese as far too often glamorizing the people and practices his films ostensibly critique, and I know many other viewers and AmericanStudiers would read Casino (like all those films) differently. But I think the comparison between these two particular films can also be read through the specific lens of images and narratives of Las Vegas—and more exactly that whatever we think of Scorsese’s own perspective on the themes his film presents, there’s no doubt that the character of Rothstein is seduced by the glitz and glamour of Vegas (as, in their own ways, are both Ginger and Nicky). Which makes it very difficult for any viewer of Casino not to be likewise seduced—that is, even as De Niro’s voiceover behind those tracking shots is telling us that this is how the casino takes our money, I’d argue that the shots themselves are making us want to catch the next flight out to hand it over. Whereas the Godfather films present a Vegas that more clearly corrupts and destroys everyone, even the most powerful figures who come to be associated with it—and if we don’t want to end up like Moe Greene, we’d best keep our distance.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

Monday, June 20, 2022

June 20, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Bugsy Siegel

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On what Siegel’s two earlier settings contributed to his Las Vegas legacies.

1)      New York: The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Benjamin Siegel (1906-1947) was born in Brooklyn and came of age in New York’s early 20th century Jewish American community. He joined street gangs at a very young age and shortly thereafter befriended Meyer Lansky, just four years older than Siegel but already on his way to becoming the notorious gangster who would help fix the 1919 World Series and become part of the inspiration (along with his compatriot Arnold Rothstein) for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim. Together, Siegel and Lansky went on to found the National Crime Syndicate, also known as Murder, Incorporated, an organization that linked numerous families in the area and beyond. What Siegel clearly learned in each of these early stages was the role that local relationships, networks, and communities played in building larger and more nationally powerful presences—lessons he would seek to apply a few decades later as he helped build an entire city where there had been no network but the desert a short time before.

2)      Hollywood: When the heat got too much for Siegel on the East Coast (thanks to his own role in various famous murders and assassinations, to be clear), he moved both his young family and his crime organization west, settling in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. He would continue and amplify all his Murder, Inc. and related activities out there, but would also become closely associated with Hollywood, associating with stars like Clark Gable and Cary Grant, becoming close enough to the actress Jean Harlow that she was godmother to his daughter Millicent, and throwing parties at his Beverly Hills home for bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer. Although much briefer than his time in New York, Siegel’s Hollywood stage offered a crucial lesson in the intersections between crime and celebrity, with both among other connections being irresistibly appealing to the broader American public. Siegel would help turn Las Vegas into the single clearest symbol of those interconnected layers.

3)      Vegas: In 1930, Las Vegas (which had only been incorporated as a city in 1911) was scarcely populated; by 1950, it was one of America’s most booming urban centers, despite that aforementioned location in the middle of hundreds of miles of uninhabitable deserts. There were various factors which contributed to that striking change, but a central one was the role of organized crime in supporting and financing the growth of casinos and the Strip—and no single figure was more instrumental to those efforts than Bugsy Siegel. Siegel saw in William Wilkerson’s Flamingo Hotel a perfect starting point for such rapid expansion, and eventually forced Wilkerson out and turned the Flamingo into a model of the hotel-casino-lounge-theater form that would come to define Vegas. Yet despite its success the Flamingo was constantly in the red, and Siegel’s criminal compatriots accused him and/or his mistress Virginia Hill of skimming from the profits. His June 1947 murder was the result, one more reflection of the intersections of crime and community, commerce and celebrity, vice and violence that defined Siegel’s life and the city he helped create alike.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 18, 2022

June 18-19, 2022: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads

[I can’t lie, I haven’t had time to read for pleasure during this academic year, so I didn’t have a ton of new recs for this year’s Beach Reads series. So I wanted to revisit authors and books I’ve read on the beach over my life—and to ask for recommendations for this wonderfully diverse and deep crowd-sourced weekend post we can all throw in the beach bag. Add yours, please!]

On Twitter, Joyce Patterson responds to Monday’s post, sharing, “A friend turned me on to Tony Hillerman novels before my first trip to the SW about 30 years ago. I had a much deeper appreciation for the region and was completely hooked by Leaphorn and Chee!”

Laura Kitchings responds to Tuesday’s Clancy post, noting, “I’m always amazed at the tight editing of Hunt for Red October which falls apart in later books, when the author had more control.” She also adds her own Beach Read suggestion, “Really any Jenny Crusie, but the co-written Agnes and The Hitman is a regular read.”

While Cyndula counters my overall emphasis on happy childhood Beach Reads, writing, “NO…read Intensity by Dean Koontz and be all stressed for your beach read. That’s my suggestion anyway.”

Other Beach Read suggestions:

AnneMarie Donahue shares, “LOL On the Beach by Shute! Kidding aside, I love cozy mysteries and the Hamish Macbeth series is fun, super easy to tear thru, and honestly a blast. ‘Night Surf’ by King is fun as well! And since the film is coming out soon Salem's Lot.”

John Stella tweets, “Love: Defending Jacob by William Landry. Any book by William Martin. Mary and Carol Higgins Clark books (separately and co-authored).”

Catherine Patterson tweets, “So many good books to share (for me, reading is pleasure and relaxation all rolled into one). I just finished Hello Molly! by Molly Shannon.” She adds, “I’ve also loved Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton.”

Larry Hartzell tweets, “Highly recommend the Dervla McTiernan novels featuring Cormac Reilly, especially The Ruin and The Scholar.”

Dalchico tweets, “While I love serious reads for fall and British/EU mysteries for winter, I indulge in breezy and fun reads for summer! For our annual family OBX vacay I always take along Vicki Delany writing as Eva Gates, The Lighthouse Library mystery series. Fictional OBX at the real OBX!”

Savannah Paige Murray shares, “So right now I'm reading Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains by Kerri Arsenault. Part memoir and part science writing about environmental and health costs from the paper mill where Arsenault grew up! It is soooo good. I also just finished and loved Gentrifier: A Memoir by Anne Elizabeth Moore about her (mis)adventure with winning a ‘free’ house in Detroit, MI through a nonprofit. Such strong voice and great writing throughout! Oh and Vladimir by Julia May Jonas--this novel . . . I could not put it down! Unlike anything I've ever read. Highly recommend!”

Katy Covino nominates, “I've been on a Lucy Foley kick. The Guest List, The Paris Apartment, and The Hunting Party are more thrillers. The Book of Lost and Found and The Invitation are more historical romances. The audiobooks are also really good - different actors, lots of accents - makes weeding (and reading) a lot more fun.”

Nicole Bjorklund writes, “I love light and fluffy books for the beach - ones that aren’t necessarily unputdownable, but rather that you can easily put down when your kid wants to build a sandcastle or jump in the ocean with you and you can pick it right back up without missing a beat. I read Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid in March and my only regret was that I didn't save it for the beach. Honestly her entire catalogue would all be great beach reads, but it helps that this one is set in Malibu. Emily Henry has a romance novel CALLED Beach Read - to be perfectly honest I didn't love it but so many people do so it's worth putting it out there. I'd recommend her newest one, Book Lovers, instead. The People We Keep by Alison Larkin is really great as well. Might be my favorite book this year so far. If you're a thriller-beach-reader, I highly recommend pretty much anything by Riley Sager. The Night Shift by Alex Finlay would also be a good beach-day thriller.”

Melissa Mazzone (herself a very talented writer) seconds some of these, writing, “The perfectly named BEACH READ by Emily Henry, but I love her adult rom-com follow-up even more, PEOPLE WE MEET ON VACATION. She is by far one of my favorite contemporary writers right now! Her three adult rom-coms are filled with hilarious banter, palpable chemistry and very swoony & realistic love stories. For fast-paced thrillers, Rachel Hawkins' RECKLESS GIRLS and THE WIFE UPSTAIRS are fantastic. Short and punchy with delightful twists, slow-burn suspense and smart characters.”

Shayne Simahk highlights, “Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, and Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran.”

Natalie Chase, who received her MA in English Studies from FSU this past Spring, suggests, “Just read Family of Liars and both that and We Were Liars (its sequel) are great nostalgic beach reads with a dark twist.”

Blog Guest Poster Tanya Roth tweets, “Oh, I have been on a reading TEAR lately. For starters: for YA fans, pair E. Lockhart's We Were Liars and the new prequel, Family of Liars (read We Were Liars first); The Guncle by Steven Rowley is *fantastic*, a great summer read or anytime read; I *adored* Kelly Barnhill's When Women Were Dragons; Rachel Barenbaum's Atomic Anna was captivating; Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility is a slim, BEAUTIFUL volume that reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (a fave); Speaking of Bradbury, I always, always, always love Dandelion Wine (and Martian Chronicles); Allison Pataki's The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post was so good, I couldn't put it down; Natalie Jenner's Bloomsbury Girls was excellent; and finally, Sheila Williams, Things Past Telling— forget Roots. Read this, then go read Tiya Miles' All That She Carried.

Indigo Eriksen highlights “Any fiction by Peter Heller, esp The Dog Stars and The River.”

Andy Cornick shares, “Child Zerowritten by an old friend, praised by Stephen King himself. Quick read, dystopian near-future thriller with Crichton-esque flare for scientific horror.”

Kelly Stowell nominates “the Terry Pratchett Discworld series.”

And to conclude on a different note, Derek Tang shares, “I love reading the faces of people walking along the beach. Especially the ones attempting to corral little kids or feisty pets.”

Next series starts Monday,


PS. Keep the Beach Read recs coming!