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My New Book!

Saturday, September 30, 2023

September 30-October 1, 2023: September 2023 Recap

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

September 4: Fall Semester Previews: Ethnic American Literature: For this semester’s previews series I focused on ongoing challenges, starting with teaching Ethnic American lit & history in 2023.

September 5: Fall Semester Previews: English Studies Capstone: The series continues with how to frame and teach a future-focused class in a moment when the future is so fraught.

September 6: Fall Semester Previews: First-Year Writing I: Teaching writing in the age of ChatGPT, as the series previews on.

September 7: Fall Semester Previews: American Lit Online: A continued challenge of online-only teaching, and one for which I’d love ideas and perspectives!

September 8: Fall Semester Previews: Departmental Program Review: The series concludes with ongoing departmental work for the year and why it matters so much.

September 9-10: Update on My Current Book Project: And speaking of ongoing work, a semi-update on and request for connections with my new book project.

September 11: AmericanStudying The Rising: “Into the Fire” and “The Rising”: A September 11th series on Springsteen’s amazing cultural response to that tragedy starts with two complementary but also contrasting ways to see firefighters and their families.

September 12: AmericanStudying The Rising: “Paradise” and “Worlds Apart”: The series continues with two very different ways that The Rising pushes past stereotypes of Muslims.

September 13: AmericanStudying The Rising: “You’re Missing” and “Mary’s Place”: A pair of couplets that reflect two sides of loss and griefs, as the series rises on.

September 14: AmericanStudying The Rising: “The Fuse” and “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”: In response to a frustrating current controversy, two Bruce songs that remind us of the vital role of cultural works about sex in challenging times.

September 15: AmericanStudying The Rising: “My City of Ruins” and “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”: The series concludes with two accidentally resonant songs that highlight how art can radically change meaning alongside unfolding histories.

September 18: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Two Fires: For the 150th anniversary of its starting point, a series on the Panic of 1873 kicks off with two disasters that helped set the stage for that crash.

September 19: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: The Coinage Act: The series continues with a controversial 1873 law and the causes and contingencies of history.

September 20: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Two Panics: What was quite similar and what importantly distinct about two 19th century Panics, as the series rolls on.

September 21: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: The Railroad Strike: How a hugely important national labor action was influenced by the Panic, and vice versa.

September 22: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Anti-Chinese Prejudice: The series concludes with the Panic’s key role in three stages of the evolving anti-Chinese movement.

September 23-24: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: 2023 Connections: A special weekend post on one overt and two more subtle (but perhaps even more important) echoes of the 1870s.

September 25: Cultural Falls: Young Adult Lit: An autumn series on cultural images of falls kicks off with two young adult novels that fractured my innocence alongside that of their protagonists.

September 26: Cultural Falls: American Pastoral: The series continues with Philip Roth’s masterful historical novel which embodies both the extreme and the poignant 60s losses of innocence.  

September 27: Cultural Falls: The Body and Stand By Me: A novella and film adaptation that, in their divergent portrayals of the loss of innocence, also reflect the complexities of adaptation, as the series falls on.

September 28: Cultural Falls: Presumed Innocent: The legal thriller and film adaptation that exemplify the multiple layers of revelations about innocence and guilt in the best mystery fiction.

September 29: Cultural Falls: “American Pie”: The series and month conclude with the straightforward and subtler sides to the famous ballad about individual and cultural losses of innocence.

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, September 29, 2023

September 29, 2023: Cultural Falls: “American Pie”

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On the straightforward and subtler sides to a beloved ballad about individual and cultural losses of innocence.

Like I imagine many teenage boys in the four decades since its release, I memorized the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971) during my high school years. Partly that had to do with one very particular moment in the song, and just how much every teenage boy can associate with watching that certain someone dance with a certain someone else in the gym and knowing that the object of our affection is instead “in love with him”—and how much we thus all felt at times like “a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck.” But partly it seems to me that McLean’s song captures and allegorizes a more general part of teenage life, the life and death significance that we place on music, relationships, friendships, social status, all those potentially fleeting things we care about and worry about and love and hate with such force.

As this piece on McLean’s official website indicates, McLean intended the song as a tribute both to his own turbulent teenage years and to the even more turbulent American moment with which they coincided—a moment that began (for McLean and in the song) with the February 1959 death of Buddy Holly (among other popular artists) in a plane crash and would conclude a decade or so later with American society and culture in one of our most fractured states. His song thus became an anthem for two seemingly unrelated but often conjoined narratives: “The Day the Music Died,” the story of one of the most tragic days in American cultural history; and the decade-long loss of innocence that is often associated with the 1960s and all the decade’s tragedies and fissions. These aspects of McLean’s song are contained in every section: the February 1959-set introduction, the increasingly allegorical verses, and the far more straightforward chorus.

But there’s another, and to my mind far more ambiguous, side to that chorus and to McLean’s song. The question, to boil it down, is this: why do the chorus and song focus so fully on Buddy Holly, rather than (for example) on his fallen peer Ritchie Valens? Holly is generally cited as far more influential in rock and roll history, but at the time of the crash he had only been prominent for a year and a half (since his first single, “That’ll be the Day” [1957]); Valens, while five years younger, was on a very similar trajectory, having recorded his first few hits in the year before the crash. Moreover, while Holly’s sound paralleled that of contemporaries such as Bill Haley, Valens’ Latino American additions distinguished him from his rock and roll peers. So it’s difficult not to think that an Anglo-centric vision of America has something to do with McLean’s association of “Miss American Pie” and “good old boys” with Holly rather than Valens—an association that, aided no doubt by McLean’s song (if complicated a bit by the hit film La Bamba [1987]), American narratives too often continue to make.

September Recap this weekend,


PS. Images of fall, or The Fall, that you’d highlight?

Thursday, September 28, 2023

September 28, 2023: Cultural Falls: Presumed Innocent

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On the multiple layers of revelations built into the best mystery fiction (major SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read Scott Turow’s novel or seen the Harrison Ford film).

I’ve blogged frequently enough about mystery fiction (and films) to illustrate just how seriously I take the genre as art well worth our analytical time. There are lots of reasons why, but a prominent one would have to be just how much the genre, by its very nature, can teach us about society. That is, the detective’s job, or at least a necessary corollary to his or her job, is to learn about the world around him or her, whether specific (as in Agatha Christie’s town of St. Mary Mead or Ross MacDonald’s California) or broad (as in the mysteries of human nature with which Sherlock Holmes seems so frequently to grapple). And while it’s not impossible for those deductive revelations to include inspiring lessons (about love or courage in the face of threats, for example), the genre’s nature likewise means that most of the time the lessons entail literal falls from innocence, recognitions of the guilt not only in those who commit crimes but (much of the time) in the world as a whole.

I know of few mystery novels that better exemplify those multi-layered, sobering revelations about the world than Scott Turow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent (1987). Turow’s first-person narrator, prosecutor Rusty Sabich, stands accused of killing the woman with whom he was having an extra-marital affair; the evidence against Rusty is overwhelming, and although he is eventually acquitted, the cause is simply another level of guilt: Rusty and his lawyer discover that the case’s judge has been taking bribes, and use the information as leverage to force an acquittal. Moreover, virtually every other character in the novel is guilty of something significant as well; the cop who first investigates the case, for example, is a longtime friend of Rusty’s and illegally disposes of evidence in an (unsuccessful) attempt to shield Rusty from suspicion. Rusty’s story and world are so choked with guilt, so driven by it from start to finish, in fact, that the title begins to feel less like a legal concept and more like a sardonic social commentary.

Moreover (double SPOILER ALERT for this paragraph!), the novel’s final revelation adds two intimate and even more compelling falls from innocence to the mix. In the closing pages, Rusty discovers evidence that makes clear that the murderer was his wife, who had uncovered the affair, confronted and killed the mistress, and then tried to frame Rusty for the crime instead (going so far as to plant his semen at the scene of the crime). Even on its own terms, this fall from innocence, connected as it is to the woman with whom he has spent his life and has a family, is the novel’s most shocking and damning. But Rusty chooses not to turn his wife in, and the reason is his recognition of the story’s fundamental layer of guilt, its original sin, the fall from innocence that started it all: his affair. Which is to say, the book’s ultimate revelation is that its first-person narrator, its voice and perspective, and (as in almost any first-person book) its most intimate connection to its audience, is the most guilty party of all.

Last fall tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

September 27, 2023: Cultural Falls: The Body and Stand by Me

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On the novella that’s explicitly about the “fall from innocence,” and the film adaptation that’s less so.

In 1982, frustrated by his inability to publish works that weren’t part of the horror genre in which he had risen to fame, Stephen King decided to release four such novellas as one collection, Different Seasons, with each novella linked to one of the four seasons. The most famous, thanks to its cult classic film adaptation, is almost certainly the collection’s first piece, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (seasonal subtitle: Hope Springs Eternal). But nearly as well-known, thanks in large measure to its own popular film adaptation Stand by Me (1986), is the collection’s third piece, The Body (seasonal subtitle: Fall from Innocence). (The collection’s summer novella, Apt Pupil: Summer of Corruption, has also been made into a film, and is, in its portrayal of a teenage boy corrupted by a former Nazi war criminal, a candidate for both this week’s series and this one on Nazis in America.)

On the surface, The Body and Stand by Me are almost identical: in each forty-something novelist Gordie Lachance narrates the story of a teenage adventure with his three best friends, a trip that the four boys take after hearing about a dead body out in the woods near their hometown. Moreover, each ends with (among other things) Gordie informing the audience that his best best friend, Chris Chambers, worked his way out of a poor and violent upbringing to reach college and law school, only to die in a random and tragic stabbing, a detail that certainly symbolizes the loss of childhood innocence as the protagonists move into the often brutal and cold adult world. Yet the change in title from the novella to the film illustrates a broader thematic shift: Rob Reiner’s movie is far more centrally concerned with the camaraderie and joys of teenage friendship (its last line is “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”, which appears in the middle of King’s book and is thus emphasized far more in the film); while King’s novella depicts the world’s brutalities much more consistently, including a savage beating that all four boys receive at the hands of an older brother and his friends.

Which is to say, at the risk of oversimplifying the two works, Reiner’s film is ultimately pretty nostalgic about the world of childhood, while King’s novella complicates and to my mind ultimately rejects that kind of nostalgia. Concurrently, the two could be read as depicting the loss of innocence in very different ways: Reiner’s film portraying it as a moment of genuine shift, from one kind of life and world to another; and King’s as more of a realization about the darkness of the world we have always inhabited, even as young people. I think there’s a place in our narratives and images for both stories, and that they complement each other nicely; but I also think that King’s story is a bit truer to the world of young adulthood, which while certainly free of various adult responsibilities and pressures can still be (as the Knowles and Cormier books from Monday’s post illustrate) as fraught and perilous as the darkest realities of adult life.

Next fall tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

September 26, 2023: Cultural Falls: American Pastoral

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On a novel with over-the-top moments that practically scream “loss of innocence,” and the quieter scene that much more potently captures it.

To follow up the main idea from yesterday’s post, I experienced a very different kind of teenage literary loss of innocence when I decided to read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) for pleasure in early high school (what can I say, I was a nerd and the son of an English professor to boot). I can still quite distinctly remember arriving at Chapter 2, “Whacking Off,” and encountering for the first time just exactly how far Roth is willing to go—how obscene, how graphic, how flagrantly over-the-top. For reasons not quite known to me, in my second semester at Fitchburg State I chose to put Portnoy on the syllabus of a junior-level seminar on “Major American Authors of the 20th Century,” and got to see 25 undergrads—24 women, by chance—having their own such encounters with Roth, the novel, and that chapter in particular. Let’s just say that it wasn’t just me.

Roth’s late masterpiece American Pastoral (1997) is a far more realistic and restrained work than Portnoy, but nonetheless Roth includes a couple of distinctly Roth-ian over-the-top scenes, both symbolizing quite overtly his novel’s overall themes of the loss of innocence that accompanied the late 60s and early 70s in American culture and society. In the first, the novel’s now middle-aged protagonist, Swede Levov, meets with a seemingly innocent young women to try to learn the whereabouts of his missing daughter Merry; the woman turns out instead to be a brazen and cynical 60s radical, and she meets the Swede naked, graphically exposing and probing herself in front of him (while daring him to, in essence, rape her). In the second, the tour-de-force set piece with which Roth concludes the novel, a family dinner full of shocking revelations and betrayals is set against the backdrop of the televised Watergate hearings, and culminates with an insane drunken woman stabbing an elderly man in the head with her fork.

These scenes are as surprising and shocking as intended, and I suppose in that way they make Roth’s point. But if he intends the theme of the loss of innocence to be tragic as well as disturbing and comic (which those two scenes are, respectively), then I would point a far quieter and to my mind far more potent scene. In it, the Swede finally finds Merry and sees her again, for the only time between her teenage disappearance (after she bombs a local post office in political protest and kills an innocent bystander) and his own later death. He asks a few questions, but mostly what he does is listen (to her stories of all the horrors she has experienced in the years since the bombing) and observe (her literally fading life as a converted Jainist, one for whom any contact with the world is destructive and so self-deprivation and -starvation comprises the only meaningful future). As a parent, I can imagine nothing more shattering hearing and seeing such things from one of my children—and in the Swede’s quiet horror and sadness, Roth captures a far more powerful and chilling loss of innocence.

Next fall tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Monday, September 25, 2023

September 25, 2023: Cultural Falls: Young Adult Lit

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On two iconic YA novels that fractured my innocence right alongside that of their characters.

The early teenage years—those of late middle school into the beginning of high school—seem to resonate particularly well with the idea of a loss of innocence. I’m sure that kids who grow up in far more difficult situations than I did, or who have to deal with loss at a young age, or otherwise are confronted with the world’s darker realities experience the shift from innocence to experience, naiveté to maturity, earlier. But even those of us who make it through childhood unscathed are going to come up against the harsher sides to life at some point, and ages 12-15 seems like a pretty common such milestone. I say that partly as a kid who was badly hazed by his cross-country teammates during his freshman year of high school—but also partly the one who read John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (1959) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Beyond the Chocolate War (1985) in 8th grade.

I’d be lying if I said I remember much at all of the three books—that’s more than 30 years, and a whole lot of books, under the bridge. But what I do remember are a couple of specific and very dark moments, of literal and symbolic falls: the seemingly accidental fall that Knowles’ protagonist Gene purposefully causes his friend Finny to take, a fall that eventually leads to Finny’s death (among other destructive effects); and a profoundly disturbing suicide scene in Cormier’s sequel, one that locates readers in the perspective of a young student leaping to his death after being ostracized and abused for his homosexuality by his peers and even a teacher. Obviously those weren’t the first literary deaths I had encountered—in 6th grade English I read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None (1939), for crying out loud!—but they might have been the first in which kids my own age were killed, at least in such purposeful and brutal ways (ie, not the accidental drowning in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia [1977], traumatic as that was for this young reader).

Perhaps it was that sense of proximity and (in a way) threat to myself that led these particular moments, and the novels in which they occur, to hit me as hard as they did. Perhaps it was that all three books are deeply concerned with what it means to be a teenage boy, in some of the better but (I would argue) mostly some of the worst senses. And perhaps it’s a tribute to their interesting and almost entirely implicit engagement with the wars during which they’re set—Knowles does have his characters engage with World War II at times, and especially toward the end of his novel; I don’t believe Cormier mentions Vietnam at all, certainly not at length, but his titular war certainly gestures in that direction. War, after all, has long been one of the most overt and catastrophic ways in which young men—and their societies—lose their innocence; in my reading of these young adult novels and their effects on me, I was led to feel such effects far more intimately than might otherwise have been the case.

Next fall tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Saturday, September 23, 2023

September 23-24, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: 2023 Connections

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to this weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On one overt and two subtle (but perhaps even more important) echoes of the 1870s.

1)      Downturn: As I’ve traced throughout the week’s posts, the Panic and subsequent crash of 1873 spawned many years of intense economic downturn and depression. That era came to be known as the Long Depression, but we’ve had plenty longer since, including the recession that followed the 2008 crash. There’s a lot about 2008 that feels eerily similar to 1873, including the central role of speculation in creating the circumstances for both crashes. And just as (it seems to me) we’ve downplayed the 1870s depression in our collective memories, making it harder to engage with the various contexts I’ve highlighted across this series, I’d argue that we haven’t yet fully grappled with how significant and lasting (perhaps even into our own moment, despite narratives that it ended in 2009) the post-2008 downturn has been. Neither was quite the Great Depression, but that doesn’t mean these weren’t defining downturns in their own right.

2)      Prejudice: One of the most fraught debates of the last decade in American politics and society has been whether “economic anxiety” or white supremacy lies at the root of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory and the broader Trump/MAGA movement. But I would argue that the 1870s reveal quite strikingly that this is a false choice: that in times of economic downturn, white supremacist prejudice and hate toward Americans of color and other minorities simply gain significantly greater purchase over far too many Americans (not that it’s ever far from us, but nonetheless that it becomes even more dominant in these moments). The anti-Chinese American movement had been present before the Panic of 1873 (see the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre for one telling piece of evidence), but I honestly don’t know if it would have reached the level of national prominence required to produce the Chinese Exclusion Act without the decade’s economic crisis.

3)      Labor: As I wrote in Thursday’s post, I don’t believe there’s nearly enough connection drawn (including by me until I was researching this week’s series) between the first genuinely national labor action, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the Panic of 1873 and its aftermaths. There would be various important effects of thinking through those interconnected histories, but an important one would be to recognize the influential and inspiring role that organized labor can play in responding to economic crises and offering workers and all Americans an alternative vision of solidarity and community. Which makes it anything but a coincidence that we’re in the midst of the most significant series of labor actions that the nation has seen in a long time, if not indeed since the late 19th century. Given the hugely meaningful successes and progress which that late 19th century labor movement achieved, it’s fair to say that this 2023 echo offers some real hope amidst so many more painful such parallels.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?

Friday, September 22, 2023

September 22, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Anti-Chinese Prejudice

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On the Panic’s key role in three stages of the era’s evolving anti-Chinese movement. [NB. For a lot more on all of this, keep an eye out for my next book!]

1)      The Workingmen’s Party of California: While the Panic of 1873 and the resulting Long Depression affected all Americans, as I discussed in yesterday’s post it hit railroad workers especially hard; many of those railroad workers were in the Western U.S., and so workers in states like California felt the effects particularly acutely. In 1877, a group of labor leaders in that state formed a third party, the Workingmen’s Party of California (sometimes known as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States), in an effort to stand up for the rights of working Californians—or rather, of white working Californians, as their platform (hyperlinked above) directly targeted and attacked Chinese American workers as a principal source of their woes. Indeed, this prejudice wasn’t just a component of their platform—“The Chinese Must Go!” became the party’s constantly repeated slogan. This labor-linked political party could have chosen to fight for all laborers, but instead made attacks on Chinese American workers an essential element of its identity and goals.

2)      The San Francisco Massacre (often called a race riot, but you know my feelings on that): As American history has demonstrated time and time (and time and time) again, such prejudiced and hateful propaganda always results in violence, and this rising anti-Chinese narrative was no exception. In late July 1877, the Daily Alta California newspaper ran an article on the evolving Great Railroad Strike, and the Workingmen’s Party called for a July 23rd rally at the space near San Francisco’s City Hall known as the Sandlot. While the rally’s first speakers sought to downplay anti-Chinese sentiments in favor of broader labor activism, the audience was primed by the Party and movement’s overall messages and repeatedly chanted “Talk about the Chinamen” and “Give us the coolie business.” When a Chinese American man happened to walk by, the crowd attacked him, and the hate crime exploded into a multi-day orgy of violence targeting the city’s longstanding (indeed, pre-United States in origin) Chinatown neighborhood. By the massacre’s end on July 25th, much of that community had been burned to the crowd, with substantial casualties as well as widespread destruction that permanently altered this neighborhood, city, and American community.

3)      Denis Kearney’s Speeches: Denis Kearney, the Irish immigrant and San Francisco business leader turned labor activist and eventual national face of the anti-Chinese movement, took a circuitous path into the movement, as I will discuss at much greater length in my book. But by September 1877, Kearney was giving his own speeches at the Sandlot, and the heart of those speeches (which made Kearney a hugely prominent and influential figure on the national stage) was a thoroughly interconnected critique of capitalist bigwigs and Chinese Americans. To quote the final two paragraphs of his most famous stump speech: “We are men, and propose to live like men in this free land, without the contamination of slave labor…California must be all American, or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be all American, and are prepared to make it so.” This Kearneyism, which became the most significant factor in the passage of the nation’s first federal immigration law, stemmed entirely from the intersection of the Long Depression and anti-Chinese prejudice and hate.

2023 connections this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

Thursday, September 21, 2023

September 21, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: The Railroad Strike

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On how a hugely important labor action was influenced by the Panic, and vice versa.

As I wrote in my recent Labor Day Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, labor unions and labor activism go all the way back to the foundational moments and eras in American history, and became significantly more possible still (at least in legal terms) and thus more widespread after the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision I discuss there. But those antebellum labor organizations and actions generally remained local, contained to the specific communities and settings where they originated. It was in the period immediately following the Civil War that a truly national labor movement began to emerge, as illustrated by the August 1866 founding of the National Labor Union in Baltimore and the 1869 creation of the Knights of Labor in Philadelphia. And not too long after, the first truly national labor action took place, the 1877 protests and riots that came to be known collectively as the Great Railroad Strike.

The Great Railroad Strike thus certainly has to be contextualized by both the labor movement’s longstanding presence and its unfolding late 19th century shifts, and it’s in those contexts that I’ve always thought about these 1877 events. But in researching this week’s series, I’ve learned just how much the strike was also influenced by the Panic of 1873 and the resulting depression. As I discussed earlier in the week, the collapse of the railroad boom was a major factor in the Panic itself; moreover, one of the immediate results of the Panic was the September 1873 failure of financier Jay Cooke’s banking and investment company, which was closely tied to railroad bonds and the collapse of which furthered the railroad implosion. Due to these factors (complemented and extended by the usual corporate greed and short-sightedness, natch), railroad companies began to cut workers’ wages consistently and steeply, culminating in three distinct and equally sizeable cuts in 1877 alone. As I discussed in that Saturday Evening Post column, the fight for better wages was always at the heart of the American labor movement, and these post-Panic wage cuts were without question the central cause of the largest and most national labor action to date.

So the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was clearly interconnected with and even caused by the Panic of 1873—but I would argue that the strike surely played a role as well in helping end the post-Panic economic downturn. Most of the narratives of that 1870s Long Depression I’ve encountered suggest that it simply “ended in 1879” (with some lingering aftereffects, of course), but if American history teaches us anything about economic downturns, it’s that countering and reversing them requires specific and sustained government intervention. And I think it’s no coincidence that the first such sustained federal government response to the Long Depression seems to have begun in late 1877, spurred on by newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman as well as Congressmen like Missouri’s Richard Bland and Senators like Iowa’s William Allison. Government intervention requires both acknowledgment of the problem and a collective appetite for solutions, and I can’t imagine anything providing more clarity on both counts than a nationwide labor strike.

Last 1873 contexts tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

September 20, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Two Panics

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On what was quite similar and what was distinct about two 19th century economic downturns.

Rampant speculation, a longstanding bubble that was about to burst, changes in international monetary and lending policies, and concurrent declining prices for key products led to widespread economic panic and resulting bank runs. When the banks ran out of their reserves, customers were unable to access (much less redeem) their currency and other holdings, and the economy quickly collapsed. While that sounds very much like the 1873 conditions I described in yesterday’s post that culminated in the Panic of 1873, here I’m actually describing the conditions in late 1836 and early 1837 that culminated in the May events which became known as the Panic of 1837. Despite some specific time period variations (for example, the 1837 bubble was in land speculation, rather than railroad companies and stocks as was the case with the 1873 bubble), the two Panics share many similarities, as do the depressions that followed each of them. (One can say the same about their mutual resemblance to the 2008 financial crisis, on which more this weekend.)

As the man said, though, history might rhyme but it doesn’t repeat, and there certainly were also important and telling differences between the Panics of 1837 and 1873. Perhaps the most telling was the role of the U.S. President in helping cause the earlier panic—not Martin Van Buren, who had been inaugurated only weeks before the Panic started (although he was blamed for the economic crisis nonetheless, a fate that many presidents have suffered), but his predecessor and mentor, Andrew Jackson. As with most questions of historical causation, there has been significant debate over whether Jackson’s infamous Bank War directly contributed to the Panic, and I’m not going to pretend to be expert enough to weigh in on that debate. But it seems clear to me that the absence of a centralized national bank was at least a factor in the collapse of the banks, and that absence was due directly to Jackson’s refusal to extend the charter of the Second Bank of the United States.

Historical causes are complicated enough to pin down, but I’d argue that effects can be even trickier. Over the next two posts I’ll focus on two particularly complicated and unquestionably crucial aftermaths of the Panic of 1873, each of which is unique to that era and thus distinct from the effects of the Panic of 1837 and the resulting depression. But I would argue that by far the biggest historical difference between the two Panics was that in 1873 the nation was in the midst of one of the largest federal government initiatives in American history, Federal Reconstruction—and the extended depression that followed the Panic of 1873 without question contributed to the frustratingly and tragically early conclusion to that federal effort. It did so in a variety of ways, including heavily influencing the pivotal Congressional elections of 1874 that voted out many members of President Grant’s Republican Party. One could also argue, with a great deal of validity, that both the depression and the elections provided cover for white Americans to abandon Reconstruction’s commitments to racial justice and equality. But however we parse the relationship, there’s no way to analyze the Panic of 1873 without situating it in the Reconstruction era, and that certainly represents a key difference from 1837.

Next 1873 contexts tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

September 19, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: The Coinage Act

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On complex financial realities, simpler ones, and causes and contingencies.

This might mean I have to give back my Gilded Age Historian membership card (and I’d like to think I’ve thoroughly earned it, between the diss/first book and the many-times-taught class), but I’ve never entirely gotten the whole silver/gold debate. I do know that the Populists were entirely opposed to the late 19th century move to a gold standard, as exemplified by perennial presidential loser William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech. And apparently a key stage in that shift was the April 1873 Coinage Act (also known as the Mint Act), a federal law which made it illegal for silver bullion to be converted into dollars while allowing for the conversion for gold. That law was caused at least in part by the German Empire’s ending the minting of silver coins in 1871, which put more pressure on the US silver supply and pushed the federal government to hasten this shift toward a gold standard. But the law also significantly reduced the overall domestic money supply, which contributed to the runs on banks that I discussed yesterday and that blossomed into the Panic of 1873.

Okay, I think that has about exhausted my take on the silver and gold debate (and as with literally everything I write about in this space, I welcome additions, corrections, impassioned rebuttals, and what have you). But one thing I do get on a broader level is the narratives and realities alike that came to define the Gilded Age, and it’s important to note that while Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner didn’t coin that phrase until their 1874 novel of the same name, the period’s trends were of course well underway by 1873. For example, it seems clear to me that the Coinage Act came to be colloquially known as the Crime of 1873 not because of specific details about silver and gold so much as due to a broader understanding that this was a law that benefitted the wealthy (who were able to obtain and stockpile gold much more easily) at the expense of poorer Americans. While that doesn’t seem to have been a main impetus for or purpose of the act, it’s fair to say that President Grant’s corrupt corporate buddies weren’t sorry when he signed it into law.

So the Coinage Act was unquestionably controversial, and reflects developing divisions that would only deepen alongside the Gilded Age over the next few decades (perhaps culminating in Bryan’s 1896 speech). But was there really enough time between its April passage and the September start of the Panic for the Act to have played a key role in causing that financial crisis? Given the earlier contributing factors like the 1871 and 1872 fires on which I focused in yesterday’s post (among other long-term factors like the collapsing railroad boom), was the writing already on the wall for the Panic long before Grant put pen to paper? The relationship between causes and contingencies when it comes to historical events always makes for compelling (if ultimately unanswerable) questions, and that’s certainly the case for this pair of 1873 events. And wherever we come down on those questions, putting the Act and the Panic in conversation helps us see both as stages in the evolving and deepening Gilded Age, an example of historical interconnection with a lot to tell us about late 19th century America.

Next 1873 contexts tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Monday, September 18, 2023

September 18, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Two Fires

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On how two disasters helped set the stage for the Panic, and why they’re even more significant than that.

I wrote at length about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column a few years back, so in lieu of a first paragraph here, I’d ask you to check out that column and then come on back here. Thanks!

Welcome back! For whatever reason (maybe it’s that damned cow), the Chicago Fire is far better remembered than the following year’s Great Boston Fire of 1872, but that latter one seems to have been just about as destructive, meaning that one of America’s oldest cities and one of its newest ones both experienced parallel, equally terrible tragedies in the early 1870s. While there are lots of contributing causes of the Panic of 1873 (including the most proximate one, a Congressional law I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s post), these two fires are definitely high on the list, as the stunning level of property damage they produced led to significant bank and financial shortages as the communities sought to respond and rebuild. Much like the Great Depression, this Panic and the subsequent depression (on which more in Wednesday’s post) really began with runs on the banks, and it’s fair to say that those runs were due both to actual financial shortages and to the widespread uncertainty and fear that can follow these kinds of disasters.

So the Chicago and Boston fires were important factors in the lead-up to the Panic of 1873, and well worth more of a place in our collective memories as a result (Boston at all, and Chicago more accurately, as I discussed in that column). But I would argue that these two fires also reflect and exemplify something else about America in the early 1870s, a related but more overarching point: its hugely rapid (and only increasing) urbanization. Obviously fires can and do occur in any community, and are hugely destructive and tragic wherever and whenever they happen. But there’s a certain kind of fire that consumes a developing urban center, as embodied most famously perhaps by the 1666 Great Fire of London and as would define another rapidly developing American city a few decades after Chicago and Boston. I’m not necessarily suggesting that fires are a given in those settings and periods—but it does seem a common (if still tragic) part of the urbanization process, a reflection perhaps of growth that outpaces infrastructure. That’s a big part of where America was in the early 1870s, a moment ripe for fires and, it seems, Panics as well.

Next 1873 contexts tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Friday, September 15, 2023

September 15, 2023: AmericanStudying The Rising: “My City of Ruins” and “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”

[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On how art can radically change in meaning alongside history.

The song, and one of the cultural works in any media, that became most overtly associated with September 11th and its aftermaths was released almost exactly a year before the attacks. America Town, the second studio album from Five for Fighting (the stage name of singer-songwriter Vladimir John Ondrasik), was released on September 26th, 2000 and included the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” That song, an interesting psychological examination of Superman’s inner perspective and emotions, was the album’s second single and had already become a minor hit by September 2001; but in the aftermath of the attacks it became an anthem for the first responders, an expression of their collective service and sacrifice on and after that horrific day. Five for Fighting’s live piano performance of it at the October 20th Concert for New York City was one of the most moving moments in a period of American and world history full of them, and cemented this song’s enduring status as a definitive artistic expression of the best of post-9/11 America.

Obviously all of Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising comprised another, and much more intentional, such artistic expression. But interestingly enough, perhaps the single song from that album which became most overtly connected to 9/11 and its aftermaths—including a similar live performance at another benefit concert, September 12th, 2001’s televised special “America: A Tribute to Heroes”—was likewise written a year before that event. Springsteen first wrote the song “My City of Ruins” in November 2000 for a Christmas benefit concert for Asbury Park, New Jersey, the seaside community that had been such a vital element of Springsteen’s childhood and early musical career alike. By 2000 Asbury Park was in pretty rough shape (hence the need for a benefit concert), and so was the titular city of ruins to which Springsteen’s speaker repeatedly implores that it “come on, rise up!” By performing the song at the Tribute to Heroes benefit Springsteen already began to shift its association to post-September 11th New York City, however, and then his inclusion of it on The Rising—indeed, it is the album’s concluding track—cemented that new and enduring association.

The specific circumstances and ways in which these two songs became so closely associated with September 11th are thus quite different, but the fundamental facts are nonetheless similar: songs written in the fall of 2000 becoming repurposed a year later after the attacks and in the process coming to feel like collective artistic anthems of that moment and its emotions. And that’s what I would especially emphasize about this interesting and telling pair of 9/11 songs: a particular and potent form of what literary critics would call reader-response theory. That critical perspective argues that the meaning of texts is made not by the authors (nor by intrinsic elements within those texts), but by audiences through their engagement with and responses to the texts. In my understanding reader-response generally focuses on individual reader/audience member, but there’s no reason why we can’t think about collective such responses, and indeed when it comes to historical events that affect an entire community or nation, it makes sense that there would likewise be collective experiences of cultural and artistic works. Moreover, Springsteen sought to produce such a collective experience with his post-9/11 album The Rising, and it’s clear that he succeeded very fully indeed.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?

Thursday, September 14, 2023

September 14, 2023: AmericanStudying The Rising: “The Fuse” and “Let’s Be Friends”

[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On the vital role of art about sex in challenging times.

One of the more frustrating recent debates has been over whether sex scenes in film and TV are necessary or outdated. Part of my frustrations have to do with a significant historical mistake: many of those arguing against sex scenes seem unaware that films were quite sexy until the emergence of the industry’s restrictive Hayes Code in the 1930s, and thus that sex scenes are far more foundational and defining to the genre than they are modern. But even leaving those important details aside, it’s also very frustrating to see so many folks arguing that sex scenes in films or TV shows serve no storytelling purposes other than to titillate or appeal to the male gaze or the like. Of course some sex scenes might be superficial or unnecessary (or even sexist and shitty), but the same could be said for virtually any type of scene in cultural works; of course there are specific issues around intimacy that need to be addressed with this particular type of scene (and are being conscientiously addressed these days, it seems), but that’s a distinct question from whether the scenes themselves contribute to elements like plot, characterization, and themes.

Songs are sex are not identical to sex scenes in visual media (although there’s unquestionably a problematic history of blatantly sexist music videos), but many of the same questions could nonetheless apply. More exactly, I’d likewise make the case that songs about sex similarly can play important cultural and social roles, well beyond titillation or the like. And one of the songwriters who has most consistently included sexy songs on albums where they might seem out of place but instead contribute meaningfully to the whole is Bruce Springsteen. Take “Cover Me,” for example, which immediately follows “Born in the U.S.A.” at the start of that album and reflects the speaker’s desire for physical companionship (not limited to sex, but certainly including it) amidst that challenging 1980s world. Or “You’ve Got It,” for another example, which comes halfway through Wrecking Ball and importantly offers sex and romantic love as ways to counter that album’s dark and depressing themes.

The Rising includes not one but two such songs, a pair of sexy tracks that complement each other and collectively represent sex’s vital role in these kinds of fraught and fragile historical moments. The couple in “The Fuse” are already together, and so the speaker’s repeated plea of “Come on let me do you right” in response to a moment when the “Devil’s on the horizon line” reflects how existing companionship can counter such darknesses. Whereas “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” is as its title suggests a proposition, one that makes direct (and maybe slightly cynical, but it doesn’t feel that way to this listener at least) use of the moment’s uncertainties (“Don’t know when this chance might come again/Good times go a way of slippin’ away”) to make the case that the speaker and addressee “get skin to skin.” As with all of Springsteen’s sexy songs, both of these tracks exist not in spite of nor separate from their album and moment’s broader contexts, but as important layers to those contexts, reminding us as so much great art does that sex is fully part of art and world alike.

Last RisingStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?