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Monday, October 31, 2022

October 31, 2022: Symbolic Scares: The Wendigo

[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on a very scary disease, past and present.]

On the supernatural legend that also offers cultural and cross-cultural commentaries.

I’m not sure what kind of collection it was—whether it was an anthology of folk tales, of scary stories, of cultural myths and legends, of Americana—but I do know that only one story from it impacted this young AmericanStudier enough to stick with me nearly four decades later: an account of a party of hunters in rural Canada encountering the demon known as the Wendigo. I can even remember the way I felt inside when my Dad read the lines about the rising and howling wind, which at least in this version of the tale signaled the imminent arrival of—or perhaps even contained—the creature. Let’s just say that, unlike the boy who left home to find out about the shivers, from then on I knew exactly what that condition felt like, and didn’t need to venture outside of the pages of that very scary story to do so.

So I’m here to tell you that the Wendigo is, first and foremost, a deeply effective scary story. But the creature and story, across their many versions, also offer complex and compelling lenses into American cultures, on two distinct and equally meaningful levels. For one thing, apparently Wendigo stories can be found in the belief systems and communal myths of numerous Algonquin-speaking native tribes across both the United States and Canada, including the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Naskapi, and others. While those tribes share a basic language system, they are as culturally and socially distinct as they are geographically widespread—and yet they share closely parallel images and accounts of these cannibalistic demons of the woods. While we have to be careful about how we read such potentially but ambiguously symbolic shared mythic figures—Joseph Campbell-like, sweeping structuralist pronouncements being largely discredited these days—there seems to be no question that the Wendigo represents a part of the collective identity and perspective of these tribes.

But as they have evolved, Wendigo stories have also come to represent something else, and perhaps even more telling: tales of the perils of cross-cultural exploration and exploitation. That is, in many of the last century’s Wendigo tales, including both the Blackwood one linked above and the one that I remember from my childhood, those being threatened or destroyed by the creature tend to be non-native hunters, often if not always venturing into native territories, encroaching on previously protected or sacred spaces, or otherwise seeking to make their mark on a land not quite their own. As my friend Jeff Renye has traced at length throughout his evolving scholarly career, Weird Tales such as Blackwood’s often highlight the dangers posed by an sort of spiritual boundary-crossing, so this particular trend is certainly not unique; but in these cases, I’m arguing, the boundaries being crossed are not only spiritual but also, and perhaps more importantly, cultural. Which is to say, while the Wendigo has always been cannibalistic, the particular identity of those upon whom he feasts has significantly, and symbolically, shifted over time.

Next scary story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Saturday, October 29, 2022

October 29-30, 2022: Tiffany Wayne’s Guest Post on The Jewel City: Suffrage at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition

 [Tiffany Wayne is a historian of women, gender, and feminism and the author or editor of eight published works in U.S. history, women’s history, and literary studies. The following post is drawn from a paper presented at the Western Association of Women Historians conference, Costa Mesa, California, Spring 2022, and is part of ongoing research for a forthcoming book project, Suffrage Road Trip: Three Women, Three Thousand Miles, and a Meeting with the President, the story of the suffrage envoys who drove from the 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to deliver a signed petition demanding a federal suffrage amendment directly into the hands of President Woodrow Wilson. You can follow her work here.]

On the evening of Thursday, September 16th, 1915, under a “bright-starred, deep-blue California sky,” more than 10,000 visitors to the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) gathered in Golden Gate Park to send three suffragists off on an epic cross-country road trip. The suffrage envoys on center stage that evening were Sara Bard Field, by 1915 already a veteran of several western state suffrage campaigns in California, Oregon, and Nevada, and Maria Kindberg and Ingeborg Kindstedt, two Swedish-American suffragists from Rhode Island who owned the brand-new Overland car and knew how to both drive and maintain an automobile. Another prominent national suffrage organizer, Mabel Vernon, traveled by train ahead of the car and connected with local suffrage chapters to set up events, parades, and meetings with mayors and other dignitaries in every major city the envoys visited and, most importantly, to make sure their activities received extensive press coverage. Between September and December 1915 they drove through 21 states from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. with the end goal of hand-delivering to President Woodrow Wilson a petition of signatures gathered in support of a simple message: We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, enfranchising women.[1]

At the celebratory send-off at the fair’s Court of Abundance, a procession of young women dressed in the traditional costumes of Norway, Finland, and other nations where women already exercised the right to vote, spotlighted how the United States lagged behind in the international progress of suffrage.[2] By 1915, women had full voting rights in Finland, Norway, Denmark, Latvia, Australia, and New Zealand, and American women could vote in eleven states, all in the West: Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (both in 1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona, Oregon, and Kansas (all in 1912), and Montana and Nevada (both in 1914). But the denial of voting rights to any U.S. citizens was an embarrassment to a democratic nation trying to display its strength and innovation on the world stage, both at the fair and soon to be abroad in world war. Stretched across the Congressional Union booth at the Expo, a banner reminded visitors: “The world has progressed in most ways, but not yet in its recognition of women.”[3] 

The three women, empowered by their powerful purpose, then drove away from the Expo, a choir singing and the crowd waving goodbye:  

Orange lanterns swayed in the breeze; purple, white and gold draperies fluttered, the blare of the band burst forth, and the great surging crowd followed to the gates...Cheers burst forth as the gates opened and the big car swung through, ending the most dramatic and significant suffrage convention that has probably ever been held in the history of the world.[4] 

The gathering in San Francisco on that evening in September 1915 was the culmination of a three-day Woman Voters’ Convention, sponsored by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), a committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and led by Alice Paul. This was the first convention to emphasize the voices and collective power of now four million women voters in the United States, a number the suffragists repeated again and again in the press coverage. California was still fresh from a suffrage victory in 1911 and the Congressional Union planned to capitalize on this fact at the Expo by emphasizing that enfranchised western women were no longer asking men for the vote, they were demanding it based on their own political power at the polls.

The send-off of the road trip envoys on the final night of the Woman Voters’ Convention was a highly publicized and carefully orchestrated spectacle, but it was the culmination of a nearly year-long presence of the Congressional Union at the (PPIE). Amidst the escalating international crisis of world war, San Francisco hosted 18 million visitors between February and December 1915 to “The Jewel City,” the theme of the PPIE. Like California itself, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a celebration of the future – of new ideas and new technologies, of progress - and, specifically, a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal. The United States had not yet entered into the world conflict, but the women’s movement was already made up of international alliances as many prominent American suffragists also worked as pacifists in support of international human rights and peace. In 1915, the same year of the PPIE, the Woman’s Peace Party was founded by Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt (president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association), and others. On June 5, 1915, five hundred women participated in the “Pageant of Peace” at the Expo, and the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace (ICWWPPP) held their convention there that summer as well. 

While many suffragists worked simultaneously for the vote and for peace during the war years, the emphasis for the Congressional Union at the 1915 PPIE was a permanent booth at the Palace of Education and Social Economy to promote their singular goal: a federal suffrage amendment. And the San Francisco Expo was the first time that women’s suffrage had its own focus and booth at a world’s fair.

Previous world’s fairs held in the United States – the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876), World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial (New Orleans, 1884), World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893), and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis, 1904) – had been important sites for highlighting women’s contributions across a variety of fields and causes. Unlike some of these previous fairs, however, there was no dedicated “Woman’s Building” at the PPIE in San Francisco; rather, politically-engaged suffragists, peace advocates, temperance activists, and a variety of women’s professional and educational organizations and clubs were active throughout the Expo. Envoy Sara Bard Field acknowledged the wider role of women throughout the fair, beyond the suffrage booth, noting that “One need not be a fanatical feminist to see the persistent permeation of the essentially feminine in every exhibit in this Palace of Progress.” There were exhibits by the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Federation of Labor (noting that “eight million working women of the land need the vote”), and the presence at the fair of other consumer and reform committees led by women. As a pacifist, Field happily concluded that the only place in the entire fair where women were happily not represented was in exhibits related to war and the military.[5]

Preparing for the Expo 

By late 1914, plans were already underway for a suffrage booth at the PPIE, and the Congressional Union began fundraising for and publicizing the booth in the months before the exposition opened in February. Alice Paul sent fundraising letters to CU members and contacts, explaining that money was needed to purchase “literature, banners, placards, and all kinds of exhibits of a propagandistic nature, and finally to pay a suffrage worker to remain in charge of [the booth] and explain the suffrage situation to passers-by, to hold meetings, etc.”[6] That salaried suffrage worker was Margaret Fay Whittemore, chair of the CU in Michigan, who was paid $70 a month to direct the booth in San Francisco from February to May. Paul explained to potential donors that “The booth is the only place that suffrage will be presented at the Exposition and it seems imperative that the opportunity which the Exposition opens to us should not be lost.”[7] The PPIE officially opened on February 20, 1915 and booth leader Whittemore reported to Alice Paul that an “enthusiastic deputation of San Francisco Congressional Union Member[s] marched” in the grand opening parade “wearing the colors,” i.e. the purple, white, and gold of the suffrage movement.

Opening Day 

The official dedication of the suffrage booth at the PPIE happened a few weeks later, on March 4th, 1915, with a large gathering of speakers and then a reception at the booth itself which was “all dressed up in C.U. colors, flags and flowers.” Whittemore presented “a brief review of the actual things accomplished by the Union in the [past] two years,” followed by a speech by Gail Laughlin, a Maine suffragist and lawyer who eventually moved west and was active in the Colorado and California campaigns, who “gave a most powerful address on the Federal amendment…and a great deal in regard to the objections of all politicians on the grounds of states rights.”

The goal of suffragists at the PPIE throughout 1915 was to create an attractive booth that would draw visitors in, but one which also represented the individual states’ contributions to the national suffrage movement. Organizers solicited contributions from state suffrage groups and gathered the following items for the booth: 

  • Rhode Island sent a portrait of Susan B. Anthony which became a showcase of the booth 
  • Connecticut sent a collection of dolls to represent women of each of the enfranchised western states
  • suffragists in Michigan pledge to send a framed suffrage map showing states where the vote had been won
  • the Women’s Political Union of New York sent photographs of some of their recent public events, including a 1912 march to the state capital in Albany
  • Arizona sent a banner, but suffragists in San Francisco wrote back to ask for a poster or photographs or “something a little more decorative”
  • the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association built a miniature Bunker Hill monument to display at the booth, representing women’s involvement in founding the country
  • Mrs. Austin Sperry (identified as the oldest member of the Susan B. Anthony Club of California) gifted a purple, white, and gold banner to the booth
  • and from headquarters in Washington, DC, Alice Paul sent copies of cartoons that had been published in The Suffragist to frame and decorate the booth; in return, she asked Whittemore to send photos of the booth to publish in The Suffragist.[8]

Things came together at the booth and Margaret Whittmore was pleased to report to Alice Paul that “Our Booth is getting very full of fine Exhibits, many of the States are admirably represented.”[9]

Another key feature of the booth was also the brainchild of Whittemore, who came up with the idea of displaying “a large cloth sign, giving the record of the vote of every Senator and Representative in the 63rd Congress...I got the idea, to be sure, from the Cover of THE SUFFRAGIST, for February 27,”[10] which showed a “Mrs. William Colt, Member of the Advisory Council of the Union, Explaining the Vote of N.Y. Congressmen on the Suffrage Amendment.”

Just a few weeks after Whittemore first shared the idea, the San Francisco Examiner described the giant panel displaying the suffrage voting record of “446 Congressmen” as the largest exhibit in the Educational Palace at “18x19 feet and in six columns.”[11] The chart of the Congressmen’s votes became a centerpiece as a visual representation of CU’s sole purpose at the Expo:

All American visitors were asked to look up the record of their Congressman; to discover how he voted on the Suffrage Amendment: they were asked to sign the monster petition to Congress.[12] 

Day-to-Day Activities at the Booth

The main work at the booth throughout the summer of 1915 was gathering signatures for the grand petition to be carried across the country to President Wilson, signing up new CU members and subscribers to The Suffragist, and distributing pamphlets, buttons, pennants, and anything else the suffragists could give away to promote their organization and their cause. In response to news that Expo rules prevented the CU from increasing their fundraising efforts by selling any items from the booth, Paul recommended to Whittemore: “If you cannot sell the Suffragist on the Exposition grounds I would advise that you sell at the gates of the Exposition.”[13]

Booth organizers also held open-air lectures and sponsored talks throughout the exposition grounds. High-profile speakers and visitors to the Congressional Union’s booth included Mary Beard, Crystal Eastman Benedict, Helen Keller, May Wright Sewall, and Secretary of State William B. Wilson. The suffragists took advantage of a steady stream of dignitaries, celebrities, and state and national politicians who visited the PPIE throughout the summer, attempting to lure prominent visitors to the booth and heavily publicizing their responses to and records on suffrage. There was even an interactive attraction when the head of the American Voting Machine exhibit invited visitors to try his machine by voting on a real issue: a mock referendum on a federal suffrage amendment. The editors of The Suffragist predicted that, “By the time the Exposition closes, the machine will have registered an honest record by which to gauge public sentiment on the amendment.”[14]  

At the same time as she was busy setting up and managing day-to-day booth activities, almost immediately after the booth opened, Alice Paul asked Margaret Whittemore to “begin work for the Conference of Women Voters. We thought the best time to have this would probably be about the end of August.”[15] Paul may have wanted to start planning for the WVC (which was eventually held in September, not August), but first Whittemore had another idea for a summer event, proposing a large International Suffrage Meeting to coincide with the wartime gathering of the Women’s International Peace Conference at the Hague; this meeting took place at the San Francisco Expo on June 1st and 2nd, 1915.

After three months as director of the Congressional Union suffrage booth, Whittemore reported on her progress – “We have been able to procure about 400 members since the opening of the Exposition” – before leaving San Francisco and returning home to Michigan where she thought she could be more useful among the people and organizers she knew. Alice Paul just missed seeing Whittemore at the Expo as Paul arrived in California at the end of summer to help prepare for the Woman Voters’ Convention. With help primarily from Doris Stevens, Iris Calderhead of Kansas, and Elizabeth Kent of California, it was another suffragist, Ella Morton Dean, who took Whittemore’s place and took charge of day-to-day operations at the booth.

Final months of the Expo: 

For the most part, after the June meeting, the emphasis for the CU at the San Francisco PPIE was on preparations for and publicizing the Woman Voters’ Convention.

From headquarters in the East, the focus of CU efforts shifted after the September WVC to preparing for the road trip envoys to reach D.C. in time for the opening of Congress in early December. In October, an overwhelmed Ella Dean asked for more help at the booth, but Paul simply said they could not afford to pay another person because of the expenses of the WVC and the road trip and the meeting in D.C. Dean suggested that “We need some special event by which to arouse enthusiasm and hold interest” at the Expo, but by then Paul had already suggested Dean cut back on activities and simply greet people who come by the booth, noting that Expo attendance in general was probably diminishing by this point late in the year anyway.[16]

But that was not Dean’s experience. In mid-October, a month after the thrill of the WVC, she reported that “the booth meetings have been interesting and well attended,” and that she was “getting as many new members daily if not more than in any other time in the history of the Booth.” But Paul had already moved on, feeling the CU had benefited all it could from the Expo and from diverting resources to San Francisco. She instructed Dean to collect on pledges made at the WVC so they could close out the books, and asked her to send photos and cartoons from the booth back to headquarters.[17] The San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition officially closed on December 4, 1915.

The year 1915 was an eventful one for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was over, the envoys made it to Washington, D.C. with some version of the petition they began at the PPIE suffrage booth, and got their meeting with President Wilson and spoke before Congress. Just a few months later, in early 1916, the Congressional Union was transformed into the National Woman’s Party and they were on to the next phase of their strategizing and the final push toward a national amendment. 

While preparation for the Woman Voters’ Convention consumed much of the CU’s organizational energy throughout 1915, the PPIE suffrage booth itself was an important point of activity, emphasizing the voices of western women voters in the suffrage campaign, and solidifying the CU organizationally and strategically as an independent organization separate from NAWSA. Indeed, among the many conflicts between NAWSA and the CU that year, NAWSA leadership rejected the CU’s platform at the Expo’s Woman Voters’ Convention of opposing any party (including the Democrats, the party of Woodrow Wilson) that did not support the federal suffrage amendment. 

As part of a 1915 U.S. tour, British suffragists and peace activists Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Frederick Pethick Lawrence visited the PPIE in San Francisco several times and spoke at the CU suffrage booth. Impressed by the work there, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence “compared the Exposition in its breadth of scope and bigness of purpose to the [Congressional] Union and its policies.”[18] Indeed, that “bigness of purpose” included settling for nothing less than an amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting women’s right to vote and was certainly the vision the CU brought to a global audience at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that year.

Further Reading:

Adams, Katherine H. and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (University of Illinois Press, 2008)

Boisseau, TJ, and Abigail M. Markwyn, Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World's Fairs (University of Illinois, 2010)

Markwyn, Abigail M., Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

Smith, Sherry. Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth-Century America (Heyday Books: Berkeley, 2020)

[Halloween series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]


[1] “The Farewell to the Woman Voters’ Envoys,” The Suffragist (October 2, 1915).

[2] Inez Hayes Irwin, The Story of the Woman’s Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1921),  p. 106.

[3] “Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist,” An Interview Conducted by Amelia R. Fry for the Suffragists Oral History Project (Berkeley: University of California Regents, 1979), Section 19, “The Demands of the Suffrage Movement: Suffrage Booth, Panama-Pacific Exhibit,” p. 294.

[4] “The Farewell to the Woman Voters’ Envoys,” The Suffragist (October 2, 1915).

[5] Sara Bard Field, “Woman and the Educational Building,” The Suffragist (September 11, 1915).

[6] Alice Paul to Mrs. Joseph Fels, February 2, 1915, National Woman’s Party Papers, Part II: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920, Series 1: Correspondence, 1891-1940.

[7] Alice Paul to Mrs. Mabel Cronise Jones, February 9, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[8] Details on state contributions to the suffrage booth are drawn from Doris Stevens to Alice Paul, February 10, 1915 and February 23, 1915, and Alice Paul to Margaret Fay Whittemore, February 19, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence; Doris Stevens to Anne Martin, February 15, 1915, Anne Martin Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; and reports on the PPIE in issues of The Suffragist from March 6, 1915, April 3, 1915, and June 5, 1915.

[9]  Margaret Fay Whittemore to Alice Paul, May 28, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[10] Margaret Fay Whittemore to Alice Paul, March 9, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[11] “S.F. Suffragettes Show Biggest Single Exhibit," SF Examiner (April 10, 1915).

[12] Irwin, Story of the Woman’s Party (1921), p. 100.

[13] Alice Paul to Margaret Fay Whittemore, February 23, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[14] “Anthony Amendment Favored at Exposition,” The Suffragist (May 1, 1915).

[15] Alice Paul to Margaret Fay Whittemore, March 11, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[16] Alice Paul to Ella Dean, October 12, 1915, and Dean to Paul, October 13, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[17] Ella Dean to Lucy Burns, October 14, 1915; Alice Paul to Dean, October 13, 1915; and Dean to Paul, October 17, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

[18] Margaret Fay Whittemore to Alice Paul, March 4, 1915, NWP Papers, Correspondence.

October 29, 2022: October 2022 Recap

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

October 1-2: Kelly Marino’s Guest Post on The “American Queen”: “Sweetheart” Bracelets, Jewelry Trends, and the World Wars: Another great month of Guest Posts was kicked off with Kelly Marino on material culture, identity, and American history!

October 3: Bad Presidents: James Buchanan: For Rutherford B. Hayes’ birthday, a series on bad presidents kicks off with the bad one who helps us resist narratives of inevitability.

October 4: Bad Presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes: The series continues with the birthday boy and why the election of 1876 was just the tip of the badness iceberg.

October 5: Bad Presidents: William McKinley: Two reasons why I can’t entirely mourn our third assassinated president, as the series rolls on.

October 6: Bad Presidents: Calvin Coolidge: How a pre-presidency moment foreshadows the worst of a 1920s administration.

October 7: Bad Presidents: Gerald Ford: The series concludes with a presidential and legal decision that set a very bad precedent indeed.

October 8: Bad Presidents: Donald Trump: But you didn’t think I could AmericanStudy bad presidents without some thoughts on our most recent and most bad bad president yet, did you?

October 8-9: Anita Siraki’s Guest Post on Interview with the Vampire: Another great Guest Post, this time Anita Siraki on the new adaptation of Anne Rice’s vampire stories!

October 10: RunningStudying: Ragged Mountain Running: A series on running kicks off with a childhood influence who exemplifies the best of running and community.

October 11: RunningStudying: The Boston Marathon: The series continues with three layers to the story of the first (1897) Boston Marathon.

October 12: RunningStudying: Prefontaine on Film: A telling storytelling difference between the two late 90s Prefontaine films, as the series strides on.

October 13: RunningStudying: FloJo and JJK: Two interesting AmericanStudies contexts for a pair of interconnected all-time greats.

October 14: RunningStudying: Three Current Runners: The series concludes with AmericanStudies takeaways from three 21st century athletes.

October 15-16: RunningStudying: Aidan Railton’s Guest Post on Strava: Definitely my favorite Guest Post yet, Aidan Railton on what social media has meant to his running career!

October 17: HUAC Histories: Three Precursors: For the 75th anniversary of the first HUAC trials, a series on the controversial committee begins with three precursors to its work.

October 18: HUAC Histories: The Blacklist: The series continues with three stages to HUAC’s divisive and destructive attacks on cultural figures.

October 19: HUAC Histories: Chambers, White, and Hiss: Espionage, railroading, and the true complexity of historical nuance, as the series rolls on.

October 20: HUAC Histories: McCarthy and Mythic Patriotism: An excerpt from my most recent book that highlights the mythic patriotism of Joseph McCarthy.

October 21: HUAC Histories: The Final Years: The series concludes with a few telling histories to the committee’s often-forgotten final couple decades.

October 22-23: HUAC and McCarthyism in Pop Culture: A special weekend post on two novels and four films that represent different sides to these fraught histories.

October 24: PBS People: Fred Rogers: A series on PBS people for Bob Ross’ 80th birthday starts with why niceness and activism aren’t incompatible, and when niceness isn’t nearly enough.

October 25: PBS People: Jim Henson: The series continues with why it’s absolutely right, and not nearly enough, to connect the groundbreaking puppeteer to PBS.

October 26: PBS People: LeVar Burton: Why the host of an iconic PBS show was as important as the content, as the series educates on.

October 27: PBS People: NewsHour Hosts: AmericanStudies takeaways from two pairs of hosts for the long-running news program.

October 28: PBS People: Bob Ross: The series concludes with two influences on and one legacy of the artistic icon on his 80th birthday.

Halloween series starts Monday,


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

Friday, October 28, 2022

October 28, 2022: PBS People: Bob Ross

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On two influences on and one legacy of the artistic icon (beyond the hair and the phrase “happy little trees,” natch).

1)      Alaska: Ross was only 16 when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1961, and he’d spend the next twenty years in the service, working as a medical records technician (and eventually master sergeant) stationed at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. I’m sure the Air Force had plenty of influences on the rest of Ross’ life and work and could have been an “A” entry in this list instead, but it seems to me that the stunning Alaskan landscapes, which in my experience are truly unique across all of America, loomed even larger in the paintings and artistic worlds for which Ross would become so well-known. Yet as always with artistic works, Ross’ paintings were a representation of and perspective on that subject, rather than the subject itself—for example, I’d say that Alaskan landscapes can be quite intimidating, especially in their reminder of our human smallness in the face of a wider world that doesn’t have much concern for or about us (nor should it); yet for Ross they were indeed filled with happy trees and other reflections of a peaceful and positive world, a reflection of his unique perspective and voice that were so instrumental in making him the icon he became.  

2)      Alexander: I have to believe that perspective and voice were very much Ross’ own, but both his artistic style and his TV presence were greatly influenced by another painter, the German American artist Bill Alexander. Alexander’s TV show The Magic of Oil Painting (1974-82) was an early and influential use of television to teach painting and art, and both the show overall and in particular Alexander’s “wet-on-wet” technique, which allowed him to create full paintings in about half an hour, were direct inspirations for Ross’ artistic and TV careers alike. So much so, in fact, that when Ross retired from the Air Force in 1981 he moved to Florida, studied with Alexander, and became a traveling salesman and tutor for his Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company. The two men eventually had a falling out over such familiar issues as a student surpassing a teacher and whether due respect was paid to the latter, and I would argue that Alexander and his show should be as well-known as Ross’. But in any case, there’s no Bob Ross without Bill Alexander.

3)      Art for All: That’s all part of how we should remember and tell the story of this iconic artist and PBS host. But to my mind, the simplest and most important part of that story is this: the transformation of art and painting from elite cultural products of talented individuals to work that anyone and everyone could create. I’m not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t particularly talented individual painters—I’ve had the chance to know some hugely talented professional painters and visual artists, including my aunt, and they had both skills and careers that reflect the medium as a serious artistic form. But I would say very much the same thing about painting that I’d say about writing: while levels of skill and talent can and will vary, everyone who wants to do it should do it, and should share what they do with all of us to add their voices and work to the conversation. That might seem like a truism, but I don’t know that it was before Bob Ross (and, yes, Bill Alexander among others I’m sure), and that’s a pretty darn important legacy to celebrate on his birthday.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

Thursday, October 27, 2022

October 27, 2022: PBS People: NewsHour Hosts

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On interesting AmericanStudies takeaways from the longrunning news program’s two pairs of co-hosts.

1)      MacNeil and Lehrer: The program that would eventually become NewsHour began, as so many aspects of modern American politics and journalism did, with Watergate. In 1973 Robert MacNeil, a veteran political journalist and moderator at the time of the PBS program Washington’s Week in Review (which remains on the air to this day!), teamed up with the younger journalist Jim Lehrer to cover every second of the Watergate hearings; their coverage won them an Emmy and led to the creation of The Robert MacNeil Report, which soon morphed into The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. That program lasted nearly two decades, and when MacNeil retired in 1995 Lehrer stayed on as the sole host, leading to the new name The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Throughout those decades, and for the subsequent couple as well (until Lehrer’s 2011 departure), the show embodied what I would call classic adversarial political journalism, of the type pioneered by folks like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite—and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that virtually all of those classic adversarial types, throughout the 20th century in America at least, were white men, possessing enough privilege and intrinsic power to speak truth to power in those important ways.

2)      Ifill and Woodruff: If that role and the assumptions and narratives behind it have begun to shift in 21st century American journalism, that hasn’t happened accidentally nor easily—it has required active efforts on behalf of journalism, the media for which they work, and their allies and supporters. One key moment in that evolution was the 2013 appointment of Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff as the renamed PBS NewsHour’s co-hosts, making them (at the time and to my knowledge still since) the only all-female anchoring team for a nightly TV news program. Unfortunately their co-hosting only lasted a few years, until Ifill’s tragic passing in 2016, but it was nonetheless hugely groundbreaking and influential. There are lots of factors in that legacy, but I’d say a particularly important one was that the fundamental tone and ethos of the show didn’t change with this transition and team—of course there’s no reason why it would or should, but it’s fair (if unfortunate) to say that narratives of “objectivity” and related journalistic questions had too often been associated specifically with traditional white male anchors and voices. Ifill and Woodruff challenged—and Woodruff continues to challenge in her NewsHour hosting role—every part of those narratives, and American journalism, media, and politics are the better for it.

Last PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

October 26, 2022: PBS People: LeVar Burton

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why the host of another iconic PBS show was as important as the content.

The first two posts in this series have focused on figures connected to the two longest-running PBS children’s shows, Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; the third longest-running was Reading Rainbow, which aired from July 1983 to November 2006 (and has since been reborn as a very successful app). I’m not sure how many of those episodes this young AmericanStudier actually watched—ours wasn’t a household where the TV was on every afternoon after school by any means—but it was enough that the phrase “If you want to know the rest, read the book!” has become thoroughly ingrained in my consciousness (and has made it onto this blog at least once and into my teaching way more than that). Obviously for the voracious young reader that I was (I may have been known, and indeed known all too well, to wander the halls of my middle and high school with my nose in a book), it was the books at the center of Reading Rainbow that made it so memorable. But in looking back, I think nothing about Reading Rainbow was more memorable and meaningful than the show’s host (and executive producer), LeVar Burton.

Burton had been acting in films and TV shows for nearly a decade by the time he landed the Reading Rainbow gig, and would continue to do so throughout his run as host; probably his best-known role, as Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), not only coincided with some of the early years of Rainbow but was even featured on an episode of the PBS show! But while Geordi might be Burton’s most prominent role, as is often the case when even the most established actors venture into the Star Trek universe, it was definitely not his most influential: that title would have to go to just his second screen performance, as the young Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries Roots (based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book of the same name). Roots debuted in 1977, when Burton was just 20 years old, and he would be nominated for an Emmy for his compelling performance as the lead character in that sweeping, multi-generational, historical and historic, truly groundbreaking and important cultural work. In an era when we’ve finally started to see a wide variety of cultural representations of slavery (and many other too-long-underrepresented histories), it might be difficult to recognize just how significant Roots was in the 1970s (and into the 80s and 90s). But it was, and Burton was at the heart of it.

That is of course an argument for remembering Burton well beyond Reading Rainbow (or Star Trek, for that matter). But it’s also an argument for kind of the opposite point: that the choice of Burton in 1983 (just six years after Roots) to host Reading Rainbow, to serve as the face of this iconic educational show for children everywhere, was a genuinely striking and impressive one. Again, it can be hard to look back on that moment without our hindsight being affected by just how beloved Burton became and remains (just note the huge, viral campaign to make him the new host of Jeopardy! after Alex Trebek passed away in November 2020). But in 1983, he was simply an African American actor, best known for his role in the most prominent cultural representation of slavery specifically and African American history more broadly (at least if we set aside really, really problematic ones like Gone with the Wind) that had yet aired in the United States. The choice of that actor and performer, that artistic figure, to host a PBS children’s show about the importance and pleasures of reading was, to my mind, one of the most inspiringly inclusive in TV history, and one that clearly has echoed into the four decades since.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

October 25, 2022: PBS People: Jim Henson

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why it’s absolutely right, but not nearly enough, to connect the groundbreaking puppeteer to PBS.

It’s important to note off the top that both Jim Henson as a professional puppeteer and artist and the Muppets as a cast of puppet characters long predate Sesame Street. Henson and his wife and longtime creative partner Jane (Nebel) Henson created the Muppets as early as 1955, and throughout the 1960s brought them and other Henson puppets and creations into TV commercials, talk show appearances, and award-winning short films among other arenas. I think I might have said before learning more about it that Sesame Street helped launch the careers of Henson and the Muppets, but it seems more accurate to say that things worked the other way around—Henson and the Muppets alike had at least begun to establish themselves in the TV and entertainment industries by the time the PBS show debuted in 1969, and it was more of a coup for the show that they were able to land Henson as a contributor and his puppets as a key presence.

In any case, land him they did, and it’s difficult to overstate the central role that Henson’s puppets played in Sesame Street’s foundational and groundbreaking success as a children’s educational entertainment. (Or even in the entirety of PBS as a network: when Henson passed away in 1990 [at the tragically young age of 53], a PBS spokesperson called him “the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service.”) It’s not just that individual Henson creations, puppets, and characters like Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird became so immediately and completely synonymous with the show, although they did and have remained so for the subsequent half-century. It’s also, and I would say especially, the way that the puppet and human characters and performers interacted and gelled so effortlessly in the show’s storytelling and settings, a creative and artistic achievement that also importantly reflected and amplified the show’s central messages of inclusion and community, of this literal and figurative street where so much difference came together into one family. Sesame Street was the product of many talented creators and artists, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way to tell the story of the show that doesn’t foreground Henson and his creations.

But at the same time, there’s no way to tell the story of Henson that doesn’t go way beyond Sesame Street—not only because of that decade-plus of origins and evolution prior to the show, but also and especially because of how quickly and fully he and his team began to move beyond it. As early as 1975 Henson was contributing characters and sketches to Saturday Night Live, as well as pitching his own weekly television series, The Muppet Show, which began airing in the UK in 1976; in 1979, his hugely successful first theatrical film, The Muppet Movie, hit theaters; and in 1979-80 he worked with George Lucas on the character of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980; Henson also suggested his friend Frank Oz to be the puppeteer and voice for Yoda). Those were of course just a few steps and areas into which Henson, the Muppets, and other creations of his would continue moving, including countless more Muppet movies, standalone films like The Dark Crystal (1982, co-directed with Oz) and Labyrinth (1986, directed by Henson), organizations like The Jim Henson Foundation and Henson International Television, and many other projects. While someone like yesterday’s subject Fred Rogers remained closely linked to PBS throughout his career, Jim Henson intertwined with just about every layer of American pop culture and society in his tragically brief but hugely influential life.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

Monday, October 24, 2022

October 24, 2022: PBS People: Fred Rogers

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why niceness isn’t limiting, but why it’s also not everything.

I greatly enjoyed the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)—not surprisingly, as two of its main stars are two of my very favorite actors of all time, Matthew Rhys and Chris Cooper—and was particularly interested in two of its interconnected main points: that Fred Rogers (a typically wonderful Tom Hanks) is indeed as fundamentally and genuinely nice as he seems, and that that niceness is more or less a superpower. Rhys’ cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (based loosely on Tom Junod, from whose 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero?” the film was adapted) is constantly looking for a meanness or darkness beneath Rogers’ niceness, and the film’s ultimate argument is two-fold: that Rogers is in reality precisely as nice as he seems on his multi-decade, meta-hit PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, if not somehow even nicer still; and that his niceness is able to powerfully and vitally affect even a deeply troubled and disenchanted person like Lloyd. That might sound profoundly treacly, but while the film occasionally ventures into that territory, I think the tremendous talents of its performers (and its director Marielle Heller) keep it on the right side of that equation.

Interestingly enough, one of the most famous moments from Rogers’ TV show likewise reflects the genuine and striking power of niceness, on multiple levels. In the episode which aired May 2nd, 1969, Rogers asked his friend, the Black policeman Officer Clemmons (played by Fran├žois Clemmons), if he wanted to dip his feet in a wading pool on a hot day; when Clemmons did so, his bare feet next to Rogers’ in the small pool, this simple, kind gesture became an overt statement against the moment’s continued racial segregation (which included swimming pools in a central and symbolic way). It was, as Clemmons later reflected, Rogers’ “way of speaking about race relations in America.” But Rogers himself apparently also had to learn from that ideal of welcoming kindness, as he was initially somewhat less supportive of Clemmons’ identity as a gay man—but when they recreated the scene in Clemmons’ final appearance in 1993, Rogers extended the kindness yet further, allowing Clemmons to sing “Many Ways to Say I Love You” and then drying Clemmons’ feet with his towel.

So niceness can open a lot of doors, in our own hearts as well as in society. But it isn’t always enough, nor necessarily the right response to a particular problem, a reality that Fred Rogers likewise reflected in one of his most famous public moments. In 1990, Rogers and his team discovered that a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was imitating his voice in phone messages seeking to convert young people to their racist and hateful messages, and he immediately took action, successfully suing to stop the Klan from appropriating him in this way. Of course it stands to reason that Rogers would oppose the Klan, but my point here is that he didn’t try to kill them with kindness, nor (for example) just to make an appeal on air for his audiences (young and old alike) to resist such hate. No, Rogers swiftly and, I would say at least, aggressively used the power of the law and of his (by this time) extremely well-connected organization to stop this hate group. I’ve thought a lot about the limits of inclusion over the last few years, and I believe Rogers would agree with me that, when it comes to domestic terrorists like the KKK, we quite simply don’t want them to be our neighbors.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?