My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, July 31, 2023

July 31, 2023: SiblingStudying: The Marx Brothers and the Stooges

[On August 2nd, this AmericanStudier’s amazing younger sister celebrates her birthday. So this week in her honor I’ll AmericanStudy interesting American siblings!]

On the two groups of siblings at the heart of mid-20th century American comedy and popular culture.

From the Booths to the Barrymores, the Douglas’s to the Bridges, on down to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and their increasingly visible young ‘uns, multi-generational families have long been a staple in American popular culture (I’m setting aside the most famous such multi-generational pop culture family in 21st America, the Kardashians, as a subject for another time if I feel up to it). Whether you read the trend as one of many signs that American society is not nearly as class-less as we like to believe, as a symbol of our hankering for an equivalent to the British royal family, or as simply a reflection that it’s easier to get ahead if you know the right people, there’s no doubt that our cultural icons have often come as part of family units. Yet I’m not sure that any other cultural medium or any other historical moment have been dominated by competing families of entertainers as were the 1930s and 40s by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

The two families (which is a slightly inaccurate word for the Stooges, since Moe, Shemp, and Curly were brothers but Larry was unrelated to them) have interestingly parallel biographies: each group of brothers was born to Jewish American immigrant families in late 19th century New York; members of each began to perform in Vaudeville-type acts for the first time in 1912, and achieved their first real breakthrough successes about a decade later; and the similarly-titled films that truly launched each group both appeared within a year of each other, the Marx’s The Cocoanuts (1929) and the Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930). The families even feature individual brothers who helped originate the act but left the group at a relatively early point, Zeppo Marx and Shemp Howard. Yet despite these parallels, in my experience it’s very rare to find passionate fans of both the Marx Brothers and the Stooges—they seem today, as perhaps they did in their own era, to have found pretty distinct fan bases.

It’d be easy to attribute that divide to the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy, and certainly there’s no doubt that the two groups tended to employ very different kinds of comedy: the Marx’s using their scripts and wordplay first and foremost, the Stooges their physical comedy and violence (although certainly Harpo Marx was entirely a physical comic, and in other ways too this division would break down upon close examination). Yet I would say that the two groups also exemplify two very distinct directions for American comedy and popular culture after Vaudeville, both employing developing technologies but in quite different ways: Cocoanuts was one of the first sound films, and throughout their career the Marx Brothers used this new medium of sound film to great effect; whereas most of the Stooges’ classic works were shorts, and while such pieces were often featured before or with other films they were also tailor-made for the new medium of television as it developed in the decades to come. Both films and television remain central media for American comedy, of course, but they work and connect to audiences in fundamentally different ways, and the Marx’s and Stooges can help us analyze those trends at their earlier moments.

Next siblings tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Sibling stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 29, 2023

July 29-30, 2023: July 2023 Recap

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

July 3: Patriotism in 2023: What the Gerrymander? Podcast: For July 4th, I shared some of the many ways I’ve been able to talk about my patriotism book, starting with this excellent podcast on contemporary politics.

July 4: Patriotism in 2023: Black Legislators, Past and Present: The series continued with the most recent of the many Saturday Evening Post columns where I’ve talked American patriotism.

July 5: Patriotism in 2023: Adult Learning Conversations: What I shared and learned in an adult learning class on patriotism, as the series talks on.

July 6: Patriotism in 2023: Critical Patriotism and the Court: One particular article and context that an adult learning student shared with me after that aforementioned class.

July 7: Patriotism in 2023: “Patriotic Education”: The series concludes with a frustratingly ubiquitous current context for the contested history of American patriotism.

July 8-9: Patriotism in 2023: Talking Of Thee I Sing: Which is one of many reasons why I’d love any and every chance to keep talking about this book, so please share such opportunities at any time!

July 10: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer Wind: It ain’t summer without summer jams, so this week I AmericanStudied a handful of summer songs, starting with a Sinatra classic that reveals a lot about performance, authorship, and collective memory.

July 11: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime Blues: The series continues with what a summer classic reveals about the voices of youth.

July 12: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer in the City: Whether all art is political, and why the question matters more than the answer, as the series rocks on.

July 13: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime: Two distinct but equally significant ways to AmericanStudy the Fresh Prince and his most famous summer jam.

July 14: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: All Summer Long: The series concludes with classic rock, pseudo-nostalgia, and the undeniable role of pop culture in our lives.

July 17: Seneca Falls Studying: Quaker Communities: For the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a series on its histories and contexts starts with a delightfully specific and importantly broad layer to the Convention’s origins.

July 18: Seneca Falls Studying: The Declaration: The series continues with one obviously important choice in the Convention’s key document, and one subtler one.

July 19: Seneca Falls Studying: Douglass and Suffrage: Three ways in which Frederick Douglass contributed to the fight for women’s suffrage, as the series convenes on.

July 20: Seneca Falls Studying: Rochester: Why an immediate follow-up convention was so important, and two of its more groundbreaking details.

July 21: Seneca Falls Studying: The Historic Site’s Site: The series concludes with three of the many interesting things you can find on the Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s website.

July 22-23: The 21st Century Women’s Movement: A special weekend follow-up on five figures who embody the contemporary fight for women’s rights.

July 24: Korean War Studying: The Armistice: For the 70th anniversary of the Korean War’s Armistice, a series on that forgotten conflict starts with why that concluding treaty took so long, and what has lingered for the seven decades since.

July 25: Korean War Studying: MacArthur and Truman: The series continues with what differentiates the war’s most prominent American leaders, and what links them nonetheless.

July 26: Korean War Studying: Films: Three films from just a three-year period that reflect three stages of cultural representation, as the series fights on.

July 27: Korean War Studying: M*A*S*H: I couldn’t write a KoreanWarStudying series without analyzing the three iterations of the famous portrayal of wartime doctors.

July 28: Korean War Studying: So What?: The series concludes with three reasons to better engage with one of our more under-remembered conflicts.

Next series starts Monday,


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

Friday, July 28, 2023

July 28, 2023: Korean War Studying: So What?

[On July 27th, 1953 an armistice signed by President Eisenhower ended the Korean War. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that endpoint and other Korean conflict contexts!]

On three reasons to better engage with one of the 20th century’s more under-remembered conflicts.

1)      The Soldiers: I would hope this would go without saying in any AmericanStudies (and any American) conversation, but I’ll say it anyway as clearly as I can: every military conflict is worth remembering as fully as possible for all those who served and sacrificed in it. In the case of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War (and obviously every individual from every nation is worth commemorating, but this blog is AmericanStudies after all), that means the more than 1.75 million Americans who served, the more than 35,000 who were killed, the more than 100,000 wounded, and the more than 7000 POWs. I wrote a few days back in this series about the frustrating gaps in our collective memory between the Vietnam War and the Korean War, and certainly that extends to our need to better remember both the casualties and the veterans of the latter conflict.

2)      The Stakes: In that same earlier post on MacArthur and Truman, I criticized the idea—shared by those two men, despite their vast and vital differences—that the Korean conflict was necessarily a proxy war in the broader Cold War battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/China/communism. I stand by that critique, but the fact of the matter is that all those governments did share that perspective (as it seems did the United Nations, at least in part), which made the stakes of this conflict just as high as (for example) those in the Cuban Missile Crisis a decade later. That is, if things had gone differently, and more exactly worse, in the war’s final events and resolutions, it very easily could have triggered a more genuinely global and destructive conflict, and that makes this moment as worthy of collective memory as the Missile Crisis and any other Cold War pressure points.

3)      Today: I don’t imagine I need to dwell at length here on the outsized role that North Korea has played in both world affairs and U.S. foreign policy over the last decade. That’s certainly due, as most everything (and certainly every bad thing) from this period has been, to the frustrating and destructive influence of one Donald J. Trump. But it’s also a result of a number of legacies of the Korean War: the DMZ and the fraught and fragile relationship between North and South Korea; North Korea’s continued insistence that it won the war and thus that the South is already part of its unification of the peninsula; enduring tensions with both China and the United States over those histories and legacies alike. One of my main goals in both this blog and all my public scholarship is to link the past to the present, to help us understand the latter as we better remember the former, and no history is more relevant to the present than that of the Korean War.

July Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 27, 2023

July 27, 2023: Korean War Studying: M*A*S*H

[On July 27th, 1953 an armistice signed by President Eisenhower ended the Korean War. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that endpoint and other Korean conflict contexts!]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from each of the three iterations of M*A*S*H.

1)      The Novel: I can’t be alone (at least among us born post-1970) in not having been aware that the entire MASH franchise originated with a book, Richard Hooker’s (a pseudonym for military surgeon H. Richard Hornberger) MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors (1968). That was just the beginning of the literary franchise, as Hooker followed it up with two sequels over the next decade, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine (1972) and M*A*S*H Mania (1977). When we remember that Monday’s subject, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, was published just seven years before Hooker’s book, the two novels become part of a longer conversation (along with Wednesday’s subject Dr. Strangelove) about 1960s wartime comedies and satires. Interestingly none of those works focuses on the decade’s ongoing war in Vietnam, but of course all of them were at least implicitly in conversation with that contemporary event.

2)      The Film: Just two years after the publication of Hooker’s novel, journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. adapted it into a screenplay that was then directed by the young filmmaker Robert Altman as M*A*S*H (1970). Both Lardner Jr. (in tandem with his dad Ring Lardner Sr.) and Altman have plenty to tell us about American culture and pop culture across the 20th century, as does the fact that the film is apparently the first studio movie to feature audibly the word “fuck.” But what’s particularly interesting to me is the way in which the film’s main changes from Hooker’s novel involve the two characters of color: in the book the main Black character is known as “Spearchucker” Jones and is the target of significant stereotyping, whereas he gets a more three-dimensional portrayal in the film; and in the book the young Korean soldier Ho-Jon is killed off, whereas in the film (and later the TV show) he survives. Close in time, but quite distinct in tone, are these two texts.

3)      The TV Show: Just two years after that film (and thus only four years after the novel—this franchise exploded very fast), on September 17, 1972, that hyperlinked opening scene of the pilot episode aired on CBS, launching what would become one of the most successful TV shows in history by the time its hugely prominent finale aired in February 1983. Of course a show that ran for 256 episodes across 11 seasons diverged in all sorts of big and small ways from the book and film alike; but the core characters remained the same, a striking testimony to their appeal across all these genres and media. But one thing that’s specific to the show’s more than a decade-long timeline is how much the world changed across those years—from the Vietnam War ending to the changes in the Cold War between 1972 to 1983, and with many concurrent changes to the medium of television itself, a show like M*A*S*H can help us track and analyze contexts well beyond its characters and plots.

Last post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

July 26, 2023: Korean War Studying: Films

[On July 27th, 1953 an armistice signed by President Eisenhower ended the Korean War. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that endpoint and other Korean conflict contexts!]

On three films from just a three-year period that nonetheless reflect three stages of Korean War cultural representation.

1)      Retreat, Hell! (1952): World War II was unquestionably the first American military conflict which featured propaganda films made and released while the war was ongoing. But it seems to me that the Korean War, shorter as it was, saw the release of even more Hollywood feature films, with more than 20 released between 1951 and 1953. Every one is its own text and worth individual analysis of course, but overall they clearly served as cultural propaganda for the war effort, as illustrated with particular clarity by Retreat, Hell! U.S. forces had by the time of this film’s February 1952 release indeed retreated back to the 38th Parallel after their initial invasion of North Korea—but from its title on, the film made the case for resisting or at least reversing that retreat and continuing the offensive. Douglas MacArthur was no doubt a fan!

2)      Cease Fire (1953): As this week’s series illustrates, the U.S. offensives did not continue and the war did indeed end in July 1953 (or at least was permanently paused, as I noted on Monday). Released just a few months later, Cease Fire thus portrays the war’s final events and conflicts, reflecting quite strikingly how these cultural representations evolved in real-time alongside the histories. But Cease Fire also features another, even more striking and pretty fraught innovation: it featured extensive footage of real soldiers and ammunition filmed on location in Korea, not stock or newsreel footage but new footage filmed for the movie itself. Long before the Gulf War’s evolution of the controversial concept of “embedded reporters,” here we have nothing short of an embedded film production, which I’d call an even more controversial concept!

3)      The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954): Illustrative as those two films are of different stages and innovations of Korean War filmmaking, neither they nor any other of those 20-plus films released during the conflict have occupied much of a place in the cultural zeitgeist over the 70 years since. The first Korean War film that has really endured is 1954’s Bridges—and while that’s unquestionably due to its impressive pedigree (it was based on a novel by James Michener and stars William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, and Mickey Rooney among others!), I would argue that it also reflects how even a year of distance can allow films to serve as thoughtful historical fiction, rather than immersive propaganda. Bridges has been described as a subtle anti-war film, and I’d say that’s exactly right—its portrayal of the destructive effects of war on individual soldiers and their loves makes for an excellent pairing with the even more famous WWII film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). All these films are worth remembering, but Bridges stands out for good reason to be sure.

Next post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

July 25, 2023: Korean War Studying: MacArthur and Truman

[On July 27th, 1953 an armistice signed by President Eisenhower ended the Korean War. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that endpoint and other Korean conflict contexts!]

On what significantly differentiates the war’s most prominent American leaders, and what links them nonetheless.

Last March, I wrote about the 80th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s famous departure from the Philippines in this post. It provides important contexts for what I want to say in the remainder of this post, so please check that one out if you would and then come on back.

Welcome back! As I detailed in that post, MacArthur had a long history of disobeying presidential orders by the time of the Korean War, which began with him in the role of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (in post-WWII Japan, but it transferred more or less directly to Korea). But to my mind the division between him and President Harry Truman wasn’t simply about the chain of command, although that was the overt and understandable (and Constitutional) rationale for Truman relieving MacArthur of his position in April 1951. I would emphasize instead the stunningly reckless attitudes MacArthur took toward both China and (especially) the use of nuclear weapons to achieve “total victory,” attitudes which if pursued to their endpoint would almost certainly have resulted in the third World War that was always possible during the Cold War. While Truman’s description of the Korean conflict as a “peace action” is certainly a complicated one, it does reflect his crucial unwillingness (particularly compared to his top general) to pursue total warfare.

That’s a vital point, indeed quite possibly a world-saving one, and I don’t intend to undermine it with this third paragraph. But at the same time, it’s difficult to argue that Truman’s decision to involve the United States in the Korean conflict at all wasn’t driven by his own belief that this was a proxy war against Communism, was part of larger Cold War conflicts with both the Soviet Union and China. Because of the respective lengths of the conflicts and numbers of U.S. casualties and presence in popular consciousness and so on, I don’t think the Korean War has ever received anything close to the kinds of critiques that the Vietnam War did, not in their own respective eras nor since. But this was another global conflict in which the United States did not have to be involved, and at least in part Truman involved the U.S. because of parallel perspectives to those which motivated MacArthur. The drastic differences in their actions and goals notwithstanding, those perspectives are a frustratingly shared part of these histories.  

Next post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, July 24, 2023

July 24, 2023: Korean War Studying: The Armistice

[On July 27th, 1953 an armistice signed by President Eisenhower ended the Korean War. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that endpoint and other Korean conflict contexts!]

On what took so long, what changed, and what lingers.

There are a lot of things that are distinct about the Korean War from most other 20th century military conflicts (at least those that involved the United States), including the fact that it wasn’t officially a war at all: after North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 the United Nations (led by the U.S.) launched a “police action” in response, and that’s what it remained throughout. The respective sides also spent significantly longer trying to negotiate an end to the conflict than they did simply fighting it: negotiations toward a possible peace treaty began as early as June 1951, just over a year into the conflict, but were not concluded until two years later (as this week’s 70th anniversary series reflects). Although that two-year period has come to be known as the stalemate, brutal fighting certainly continued throughout, and indeed exacerbated the central problem with the negotiations: the question of whether and how POWs from both sides would be repatriated (many captured North Korean soldiers apparently did not want to return, for example).

Evolutions of and eventual solutions in those negotiations undoubtedly played a role in how and when the armistice was eventually signed. But so too did regime change, in two distinct but somewhat parallel ways. In March 1953, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke, and in the aftermath of that world-changing event the Soviet Union’s power players were far more interested in internal politics and entirely uninterested in continuing to support China and North Korea in a distant conflict. In the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election, meaning not only that a Republican would be in office for the first time since 1933 but also that one of the chief supporters of the Korean conflict (President Harry Truman, on whom more tomorrow) was replaced by someone much more skeptical of whether and how it should continue. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that a democratic election and a peaceful transfer of power are at all comparable to the death of a dictatorial leader and the ensuing power struggle. But both of these changes do reflect how much individual leaders can contribute to both a nation’s path and the course of international conflicts.

In any case, after those years of negotiations the respective sides finally agreed upon and signed the Korean Armistice Agreement in July 1953. Even then, however, this conflict was distinct from others—one of the key players, South Korean President Syngman Rhee, refused to sign the armistice; another, the North Korean government, claimed at the time and has continued to claim ever since that it won the war; and there was never an actual peace treaty, meaning that the conflict remains officially suspended rather than definitively concluded. While the first two details might be seen as semantics or political posturing, the third is embodied in a very real way by the most overt result of the armistice: the fraught, contested, laden with landmines Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two nations. To my mind, the DMZ is very much like the Berlin Wall, not simply in its separation of two halves of a potentially unified nation and people, but also in its existence as an uneasy state of constant potential violence and conflict. The fact that it isn’t emphasized in the U.S. anywhere near as much as the Berlin Wall was throughout its existence reflects, I would argue, anti-Asian prejudice far more than any particular distinction.

Next post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 22, 2023

July 22-23, 2023: The 21st Century Women’s Movement

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of contexts. Leading up to this weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

We all know the myriad challenges facing American women in 2023, but fortunately we have a phenomenal group of activists of all types helping fight them. Here are just a handful of them (add more in comments, please!):

1)      Terry O’Neill: The closest thing we have in the 21st century to the women’s rights conventions of the 19th is organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Any one of NOW’s recent leaders would be well worth highlighting in this slot, but I’m gonna go with O’Neill, the organization’s president from 2009 to 2017. Anybody who got their start in politics fighting against David Duke’s campaign for Louisiana Governor gets a gold start in my book, and O’Neill has also become a leading voice against transphobia, which it shouldn’t need saying is also a 21st century women’s rights issue (but too often seems to).

2)      Judy Chicago: While this week’s series focused specifically on a social and political event, the women’s rights movement has always been driven as much by artists and cultural figures as by political ones. For more than half a century, one of America’s foremost feminist artists has been Judy Chicago, whose art installations in particular have traced many of the issues, debates, ideas, and identities at the movement’s heart across those decades. The upcoming New Museum retrospective promises to capture much of what has made Chicago such a key part of the women’s movement for so long.

3)      Roxane Gay: One of my favorite not-yet-written ideas for a column or post or whateveryagot would be to put Fanny Fern, one of our greatest journalists and writers, in direct conversation with the late 1840s & early 1850s women’s movement (of which she was an exact contemporary as she was first rising to striking prominence). When it comes to 21st century journalists and writers, none are more talented nor more interconnected with the women’s movement than Roxane Gay—and that’s despite (or really more related to) her calling one of her first books Bad Feminist (2014). If historians and the world are around 150 years from now, they’ll be reading Gay alongside today’s movement just as much as I’d put Fern alongside her era’s.

4)      Jane Fonda: Most of the women involved in organizing the Seneca Falls convention continued to be active in the movement for decades after, a reminder that any one moment is part of a much longer continuum (for individuals and movements alike). If anything, advances in medical care and other factors have allowed folks not only to live longer on average than ever before (and certainly than in the mid-19th century), but to remain hugely active as they do. And no one embodies that trend more than Jane Fonda, whose activism in her 80s—activism which has consistently been on behalf of women’s rights, although not limited to any one issue or angle to be sure—is as impressive as that of any 21st century figure.

5)      Jacqueline Wernimont: Obviously I was gonna include a public scholarly voice and activist in this list, and I don’t know any who is doing more interesting and meaningful women’s rights public scholarly work (among many other subjects) than Wernimont. To cite just one particularly influential example, her co-edited (with Elizabeth Losh) book Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities (2018) offers a vital model for how to link feminism, DH scholarship and work, theory and practice, and more, reminding us that scholars and researchers have our own role to play in every social and political movement, including the 21st century women’s movement to be sure.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?

Friday, July 21, 2023

July 21, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: The Historic Site’s Site

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On three of the many interesting things you can find on the Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s website.

1)      The Pictures: One of my favorite things about National Historical Park websites is the way they consistently use photo galleries to capture the kinds of artifacts and elements that might otherwise only be accessible to in-person visitors to the sites. Of the many such photos on that page, my favorites are those which present different angles and views of the statues in the Visitor Center lobby exhibit The First Wave, including for example this evocative close-up of the Frederick Douglass statue in that group. I’ve long argued that raising more statues to inclusive and inspiring historical figures is a key way to challenge our long history of problematic statues, and since I haven’t yet had a chance to get to Seneca Falls, I loved seeing some of these statues through the website’s galleries.

2)      The Research: Historic sites aren’t just representations of the past, of course; they are also repositories of the kinds of documents and evidence through which such representations have to be constructed. That evidence might seem like something that really requires an in-person visit to encounter, but the Seneca Falls site offers an alternative: the Research page, where they present hyperlinked versions of a number of the documents (both historical and scholarly/analytical) out of which they’ve developed their exhibits and interpretations. You could spend a whole day reading through all those pieces, and I know I’m a deeply nerdy AmericanStudier but that sounds like a pretty darn good day to me.

3)      The Map: Those first two are things at the historic site that can also be included on the website; but there are also things that websites can do and offer more easily than an in-person site. One of my favorites on the Seneca Falls National Historical Park’s website is this resource, located under the History & Culture: Stories tab. Many scholars, among them my Dad, are finding new and impressive ways to use digital maps to convey information about history, literature, and more; “The Erie Canal and the Network to Freedom” is a wonderful example of that trend, and something that really utilizes the digital humanities potentials of a historic site’s site.

Contemporary connections this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

Thursday, July 20, 2023

July 20, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Rochester

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On why the follow-up convention was so important, and two of its more groundbreaking details.

In that weeklong blog series hyperlinked in my intro above (and again here, ‘cause why not?), I highlighted the October 1850 Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, the first to bill itself as national and certainly an important step into a more widespread movement. But when it comes to follow-up conventions to Seneca Falls, I’m not sure there could be a more significant one than the August 2nd, 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Rochester. Taking place just two weeks after and less than 50 miles away from Seneca Falls, the Rochester convention was explicitly defined as a “recovening” of the earlier one, and included for example a formal approval of the Declaration of Rights. And I think that interconnected but sequential nature of the two conventions was crucially important—as I wrote in this week’s first post, the Seneca Falls Convention came about quite informally and haphazardly, and so the follow-up in Rochester represented a vital reflection of the fact that this was indeed the start of a more formal series and movement.

As you’d expect, many of the same people who had organized and run the Seneca Falls Convention played similar roles in Rochester. But there was also a significant difference in leadership: the Rochester Convention elected the prominent local activist and abolitionist Abigail Bush as its presiding officer. Bush was the first woman to preside over a public meeting that featured men as well as women, and her election was thus hugely controversial, with vocal opposition from fellow leaders like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who “thought it a most hazardous experiment to have a woman President”). Bush later recognized both the toll and the stakes of her service, noting, “When I found that my labors were finished, my strength seemed to leave me and I cried like a baby. But that ended the feeling with women that they must have a man to preside at their meetings.” Indeed, I’d say that this detail alone makes the Rochester Convention as important as the Seneca Falls one, or at least again a vital complement that also took the women’s rights movement forward in key ways.

Moreover, the Rochester Convention didn’t simply approve or continue the business from Seneca Falls—it also featured new additions to the movement’s evolving and deepening debates and platforms. Particularly striking was the convention’s attention to working women, both through an overt call for equal pay for equal work and through the creation of a Women’s Protection Union in the city to investigate and address working women’s circumstances and concerns. Speaking for myself, it’s far too easy to see contemporary communities and movements like these women’s rights conventions and the efforts of the Lowell Mill Girls to organize and fight for their rights as entirely distinct—while of course they were separate and unique in various ways, these details and emphases from Rochester make clear that working women’s rights could become part of the broader women’s movement, a hugely significant layer that this follow-up convention added into the mix.

Last Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

July 19, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Douglass and Suffrage

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On three ways in which Frederick Douglass contributed significantly to the fight for women’s suffrage:

1)      Conventions and Communities: As I wrote yesterday, Douglass was a key participant in the Seneca Falls Convention, not only through his attendance and support for the Declaration of Rights, but also (for example) in pushing other attendees to sign and support that document. Two years later, he was also a prominent attendee and participant at the first national Women’s Rights Convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts. For these conventions to truly launch both an overall national women’s rights movement and a specific fight for women’s suffrage, a number of things had to happen, but I would argue that two important steps were the presence of men alongside women and the interconnections with other social movements like abolitionism. Douglass was not the only presence to contribute to both of those trends, but he was in 1848 and 1850 and certainly remained for the rest of his life a vital voice for women’s rights and suffrage on all those levels.

2)      Amendments by Addition: It’s become a frustratingly familiar fact that the women’s rights and abolitionist (turned Black rights) movements split almost immediately after the Civil War, and a principal cause was the fight for the 15th Amendment and Black male suffrage (which Seneca Falls organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton later characterized by writing, “Surely there is no greater monopoly than that of all men in denying to all women a voice in the laws they are compelled to obey”). Frederick Douglass supported that fight and amendment, as well he should have—but he also was at that time and for the remaining decades of his life an ardent advocate of an additional amendment for women’s suffrage. To my mind that additive philosophy—seeing these amendments and fights not as a competition or even a hierarchy but as complementary and connected elements of a broader battle for rights, justice, and equality—was absolutely the right call, and it was one that Douglass continued to model despite the era’s divisions.

3)      Literally Lifelong Activisms: Right up until the very end of his long life Douglass remained a key voice in and for that fight. He did so most publicly through recollections of the Seneca Falls Convention, in an April 1888 speech he delivered to the International Council of Women in Washington, DC—the speech where he famously and importantly argued that “no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself.” But his activism continued until literally the last day of his life—on February 20th, 1895 he took part in a strategy meeting for the women’s rights movement with Susan B. Anthony and others, and died at home that evening of a stroke. Don’t know that any detail could better capture a truly lifelong commitment to a cause than that!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

July 18, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: The Declaration

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On one obviously important choice in a historic document, and one subtler one.

I’m quite sure that the Seneca Falls Convention would have had a lasting impact no matter what, not least because (as I’ll write about later in the week) it immediately spawned other such gatherings both near and far. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who as I wrote yesterday was one of the convention’s initial originators and organizers, took an extra step to make sure its defining ideas and conversations would endure, drafting a “Declaration of Sentiments” (also known as the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”) that would be endorsed and signed by 100 convention attendees (roughly a third of the group). As Frederick Douglass, who signed and also helped garner that widespread convention support for the Declaration (and about whom I’ll write in tomorrow’s post), wrote in his North Star newspaper a couple weeks after the convention’s close, this document would become “the grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”

Stanton’s most famous choice and strategy in the Declaration is implied in its title: she modeled her text quite closely on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. That’s especially true in her opening paragraphs, which include such overtly parallel but importantly revised lines as “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” But the “Sentiments” section, for another example, likewise closely parallels the list of “oppressions” with which the Declaration of Independence charges the King of England, in Stanton’s text describing what “he” has done to “her.” This choice of Stanton’s is one of the most impressive in that long list of American texts and voices that have reused  and yet revised the works and ideas of the Founding, and I would argue that it was particularly important as a way to link this 1848 Convention to the 1776 Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence. I’ve written of Abigail Adams and other late 18th century American women writers that they were truly Revolutionary, but it’s fair to say that they often operated individually; the 1848 Convention was an overtly communal effort and Stanton helped put it in direct conversation with the similarly communal framing of the American Revolution and Founding.

Yet if Stanton’s Declaration were simply a parallel to the original, I don’t know that it would have had that staying power that it did and has. It had to and did stand on its own as well, and the place it does that most powerfully is in the conclusion where she lays out “the great work before us…We shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a statement of principles that includes such an extended and comprehensive (and quite practical) plan for how to achieve those goals, and again the immediate and consistent existence of additional such Conventions (for example) suggests that the practicality did indeed help put the principles into practice. Inspired by the past but directly imagining and helping produce the future—sounds like a recipe for a great text to me!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Monday, July 17, 2023

July 17, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Quaker Communities

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On both a delightfully specific and an important broad layer to the Convention’s origins.

As I imagine is the case with many significant historical moments and events, the Seneca Falls Convention came about quite haphazardly. A large number of Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends, formally) had made New York’s Seneca County (and specifically the county capital of Waterloo) their home over the preceding half-century, including influential Quaker families (and abolitionists) like Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock and Richard and Jane Hunt. Perhaps no American Quaker was more famous in that era than Lucretia Coffin Mott, the abolitionist and activist who had gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most fiery and eloquent orators. Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright lived in nearby Auburn, New York, and in the summer of 1848 Mott and her husband James traveled to the area to visit with her sister and also to continue their activist work on a number of local levels: with the region’s sizeable community of formerly enslaved people; at the Auburn State Penitentiary where Mott lectured; and on the nearby Seneca Cattaraugus Reservation.

On Sunday, July 9th, Mott attended a local Quaker worship and then joined a group of these women from the area—her sister Martha, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and her fellow activist (and the group’s only non-Quaker) Elizabeth Cady Stanton for tea at the Hunt home. The conversation apparently and unsurprisingly turned to the frustrating and unnecessary challenges that faced these women as women, both in their activist work and in every other arena of their lives in mid-century American society. They decided to take advantage of Mott’s visit and prominence and to host a women’s rights convention, creating on the spot an announcement that began “WOMAN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION—A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” and that ran in the Seneca County Courier beginning on July 11th. Other regional and national periodicals like Frederick Douglass’ North Star picked up the advertisement as well, and despite the short notice the word spread and a fair number of attendees made it to Seneca Falls and its newly constructed Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the July 19-20 Convention.

I really love how informal and intimate that origin point was, and again I think it has a lot to tell us about how history is very often made and shaped (too often by informal gatherings of the powerful and privileged, of course, whether in smoke-filled rooms or otherwise; but in this case something quite different and far more inclusive). But it’s also far from coincidental that this was a gathering of Quakers, held at a prominent Quaker family’s home after a Quaker worship service. Other than briefly in this post on one of my very favorite American writers and voices, John Woolman, I don’t think I’ve engaged nearly enough in this space with the oversized (given the community’s numbers) and inspiring role that Quakers have played in American activist and social movements and progress. That certainly included both the abolitionist and the early women’s rights movements, the combination of which truly defined conventions like Seneca Falls. I’m not sure any historical detail better captures that foundational presence and influence than an afternoon tea at which a group of determined Quaker women launched a national movement!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Friday, July 14, 2023

July 14, 2023: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: All Summer Long

[Now that we’re really in the dog days of summer, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]

On classic rock, pseudo-nostalgia, and the undeniable role of pop culture in our lives.

Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (2008) features—repeats as the opening two lines of its chorus, no less—one of the worst “rhyming” couplets in recent years: “And we were trying different things/And we were smoking funny things.” So it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t necessarily subject the song’s lyrics, or any Kid Rock-penned words, to the most rigorous AmericanStudier analyses. But while “All Summer Long” doesn’t quite rise to Dylan-like lyrical complexity, the song does comprise a particularly striking example of what I would call the pseudo-nostalgia often found in the very concept of “classic rock”: in its title line, “Singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ all summer long”; in its concurrent, repeated evocation of the vital role of “our favorite song” and “play[ing] some rock and roll” in creating its idyllic teenage memories; and even musically, in its samples of both the Skynyrd song and (randomly) Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”

So why does a song about, as the opening verse locates us, “1989” and “summertime in Northern Michigan” make such defining use of a 1974 song by a Jacksonville, Florida band while sampling a 1978 one by a Chicago singer/songwriter? To my mind, these classic rock references link Kid Rock’s song to one by his fellow Michigander (and oft-cited musical influence) Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll”; Seger’s song is perhaps the clearest single expression of classic rock pseudo-nostalgia, the attitude that music used to be great and has sadly fallen off, and thus that the best we can do in the present is play that old time rock and roll. I call this attitude pseudo-nostalgia in part because of the blatant irony and even hypocrisy involved in denigrating contemporary music and pop culture while contributing to them; and in part because it seems to me less interested in the past itself in any specific or meaningful ways, and far more in the seeming authenticity or coolness that such an attitude grants its holder in the present.

On the other hand, I can’t claim to know what songs or artists Kid Rock and his teenage girlfriend and friends played on the beaches of Northern Michigan in 1989—and in any case it would be hypocritical of me to critique their classic rock affinities, given how much classic songs and albums by artists like Skynyrd, Seger, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen meant to my own youthful life and identity. Indeed, I would argue that my generation was the first for whom the popular culture of our parents’ generation was at least as meaningful and constitutive of our perspectives and identities as that of our own—a phenomenon that has only been amplified since, thanks in large part to the ways in which YouTube and the rest of the digital world have preserved so much of 20th century pop culture into the early 21st century. Our 21st century summer playlists are indeed as likely to feature “Sweet Home Alabama” as “All Summer Long,” not just in a nostalgic way but also and more importantly as a vital part of our present culture and world. Works for me!

Crowd-sourced bbq tomorrow,


PS. So one more chance to bring some food to the bbq: thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?