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Friday, June 28, 2024

June 28, 2024: WesternStudying: Deadwood and Justified

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On what links two great (and very Western) TV shows, and what differentiates them.

If I’m to believe my usually reliable friends at the Movie Database o’ the Internet, Justified creator Graham Yost had no role in the production of David Milch’s groundbreaking and wonderful Deadwood (2004-06, & then an awesome 2019 movie). One reason for my disbelief is that in the course of its six-season run Justified employed a very very large number of Deadwood alums, not only star Timothy Olyphant (who played a U.S. Marshal in both shows) but also W. Earl Brown, Sean Bridgers, Jim Beaver, Peter Jason, Garret Dillahunt, and Gerald McRaney (and that’s just the ones I know for sure). And it’s not just the common cast list that links the two shows: in the opening seasons of both, Olyphant’s quick-draw and hot-tempered marshal character arrives in town and develops an enduring love-hate dynamic with an especially eloquent but dangerous local crime boss (with Ian McShane’s charismatic Al Swearengen serving as Deadwood’s equivalent of Boyd Crowder) while romancing a recent widow (with Molly Parker’s headstrong Alma Garret as Deadwood’s equivalent of Ava Crowder). Even the fact that Deadwood is set in 1876 South Dakota, not early 21st century Kentucky, isn’t a big a distinction between the two shows as you might think, given the heavy emphasis throughout Justified on wedding a Wild West main character and tone to that contemporary setting and context.

The two shows are connected by more than just a stable of actors and a similar premise and genre, however. Both, it seems to me, are fundamentally focused on questions of community and individual identity, and of whether and how each side of that duality affects the other. While this is a reductive point in each case, it would be possible to say that Deadwood was centrally about whether the town would become more Swearengen’s or Seth Bullock’s (Olyphant’s character), while Justified was about whether Raylan’s or Boyd’s vision for Harlan’s future would come to pass. At the same time, each setting was exerting its pull and influence on the two men (and everyone else within its purview); the unofficial Justified anthem “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” could just as easily substitute in “Deadwood” and work equally well for that setting and show. Similarly, characters like Ava and Alma offer a chance to see how the same questions play out for a strong single woman, while Deadwood’s Chinese community boss Mr. Wu (Keone Young) parallels Justified’s Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) as a complex and compelling spokesperson (if in Wu’s case one who by choice doesn’t speak much English) for a powerful minority community in town. The more I write these first two paragraphs, the more I feel that Yost learned a great deal from Milch’s show, and wedded those lessons to Elmore Leonard’s novella to create the template for Justified’s setting and world.

There are of course lots of differences between the shows as well, and I would highlight in particular an overarching element of Deadwood that, perhaps, pushes that show into a stratosphere that the excellent Justified didn’t quite achieve. David Milch clearly believes that what happened in Deadwood in 1876 and after represents no less than the birth of the modern United States, and over the course of the show’s arc worked hard to suggest precisely that sort of symbolic change and growth beneath the muddy realities of his frontier town. Whether we agree or disagree with that concept—I find it echoes a bit too closely Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and would highlight a number of other national origin points as more broadly representative than Deadwood—it reflects a level of artistic and national ambition behind Deadwood that seems to me to have been present in only a handful of TV shows. Justified is much of the time a less weighty pleasure, one with compelling stories to tell and an equally engrossing community to create, but not quite as ambitious a sense of the symbolic value of either those stories or that community. But as I hope this 2017 blog series made abundantly clear, I very much love Justified for what it is, and would recommend it to anyone for a binge-watching session.

June Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Thursday, June 27, 2024

June 27, 2024: WesternStudying: Clint Eastwood Westerns

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On AmericanStudies contexts for three stages in the Western icon’s filmography.

1)      Spaghetti Westerns: Clint Eastwood had been acting on TV since the mid-1950s, and his first significant role was in a popular TV Western that debuted a decade after Hopalong Cassidy, Rawhide (1959-65). But it was his film work toward the end of that show’s run, in a trio of mid-1960s films from Italian director Sergio LeoneA Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)—that truly cemented not just his stardom but his close association with the genre. I think those “Spaghetti Westerns” exemplify the stereotypical layers to the genre and its gunfighter protagonists that I highlighted in yesterday’s post, not only in their actual details, but also in the very fact that they were made in Europe by a director who had apparently never visited the United States. There’s no one way films have to be made nor one person who can make them, of course, but I would just say that Leone’s American West has a lot in common with Tintin’s.

2)      Revisionist Westerns: Eastwood continued to make those kinds of iconic Western films for another decade-plus, further cementing that overall association as well as other specific echoes of characters like Wister’s Virginian (such as the Confederate veteran protagonist of The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976]). Then he took about a decade off from the genre, and when he returned to it, it was to direct as well as star in one of the most famously revisionist Westerns, Unforgiven (1992). No other Eastwood film is quite the same as that one, but I would say that the next two he directed and starred in could also be defined as revisions of Western character types and tropes: A Perfect World (1993) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995). What links all three films is both a recognition of the costs of violence and a willingness to complicate and even soften the gunfighter protagonist stereotype, each elements that hearken back to layers of earlier texts like The Virginian that had been largely absent from the 60s and 70s versions.

3)      Extending Stereotypes: Eastwood hasn’t made any films in the subsequent three decades that explicitly qualify as Westerns, but I would argue that a number of the films he’s directed during that time have unfortunately returned to and reified Western stereotypes in contrast with the more revisionist efforts. Topping that list would be Gran Torino (2008), with Eastwood playing a laconic violence-prone community-savior who literally makes finger guns at the film’s black-hatted villains. A decade later, Eastwood directed and starred in The Mule (2018), a film in which he plays a war veteran who is forced to return to his violent past due to outlaw crime lords who would not be out of place in the Wild West. And I would also put American Sniper (2014) on this list—Eastwood did not star in that one, but directed Bradley Cooper in a role that updated a number of gunfighter stereotypes for a War on Terror setting. None of these films are simplistic, but I nonetheless find it telling and frustrating that toward the end of his career Eastwood seems to have returned to some of those foundational Western tropes.

Last Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

June 26, 2024: WesternStudying: The Virginian

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On how a hugely influential novel adheres to the stereotypes and how it defies them.

I’ve blogged about Owen Wister’s bestselling novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) on two prior occasions, in this post on Walt Longmire and this one on blue jeans and cowboys. I hope those communicated my sense of the novel’s importance, so check them out if you would and come on back for some further thoughts.

Welcome back! Wister’s novel is generally credited with establishing many of the key elements of the iconic Western hero, and I would agree with that interpretation: the novel’s protagonist is a man with no name (he’s sometimes called “Jeff,” but that seems like a humorous nickname due to famous fellow Southerner Jefferson Davis rather than an actual name) who has a longstanding rivalry with a brutal villain that culminates in a duel where he guns down his rival, after which he wins the hand of his far more innocent love interest (a schoolmarm, no less). If I had to sum up that iconic and influential character and story type, it would be in one quote that would go on to become ubiquitous in the genre: “When you call me that, smile!” The protagonist says that now-famous line to his villainous rival Trampas after he has beaten Trampas at cards and been called “a son of a bitch” in response, and if that doesn’t all sum up the genre of the Western, I’m not sure what does.

As I’ve highlighted before in this space, particularly when it comes to the history of Black cowboys, those iconic images of cowboys aren’t particularly accurate to the historical realities. And interestingly enough, Wister’s cowboy character actually connects to some of those historical realities in ways that have been less well-remembered than the stereotypical details. For example, he not only works as a cowboy at the powerful Judge Henry Garth’s ranch, but performs that work so impressively that he is promoted to ranch foreman. And in that role, he is required to take part in events that reinforce the community’s power structures, such as the hanging of a cattle thief named Steve with whom he had been friends. As I’ll think about a bit more in tomorrow’s post, over time the gunfighter hero would entirely diverge from the working cowboy type, but in Owen Wister’s influential origin story those two roles were strikingly intertwined.

Next Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

June 25, 2024: WesternStudying: Wild West Shows

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On how a mega-popular medium can embody the worst and best of America at the same time (and in some of the same elements).

As part of this January post on origin points for Columbia Pictures (trust me, it makes sense in context), I noted that I’ve thought a good bit in recent years about how under-remembered Vaudeville is compared to its significant influence on 20th century American culture. At least part of the reason for that gap, it seems to me, is that it can be difficult to remember older cultural forms that were based on live performance, and thus harder to pass down than media that were overtly captured and preserved (whether in print, recordings, video, etc.). And thus we’ve also failed to adequately remember a late 19th century cultural medium that was just as popular and influential in that period as Vaudeville would become a couple decades later: the Wild West Show. As that hyperlinked list illustrates, there were numerous popular such shows touring the nation in the last couple decades of the 19th century; moreover, the most successful of them, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, was so popular that it staged performances just outside of the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for the entirety of the six-month-long fair, offering as that article indicates a genuine competitor to that hugely prominent attraction.

In all likelihood, one of the specific pieces that was featured in many (if not all) of those 1893 Buffalo Bill Wild West Show performances was The Red Right Hand, or, The First Scalp for Custer. That excellent hyperlinked Time magazine article by Ijeoma Oluo (adapted from her 2021 book MEDIOCRE: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America) describes that particular performance of Cody’s in detail, as well as its links to his overarching self-mythologizing and the narratives of the American West which it and he embodied. It is of course no secret that the genre of the Western too often featured depictions of and roles for Native Americans that were stereotypical at best and white supremacist at worst, as exemplified by perhaps the single most famous recurring shot in film Westerns: Native Americans coming over a hill/ridge to threaten the white protagonists. So it’s pretty significant to note that those narratives were quite present in this early iteration of the genre (perhaps the earliest, although dime novels were at least contemporary with the Wild West Shows in the late 19th century), and indeed that Buffalo Bill’s version was even more aggressively violent, focused not on threatening Native Americans so much as on white people’s righteous (in this highly constructed story) revenge.

There’s no getting around those discriminatory layers to both Bill and his Show and the genre of the Western more broadly, but it’s important to note that there were other, quite distinct and even opposed (and certainly more positive) ways that he and his Show engaged Native Americans. Exemplifying those more positive possibilities was Cody’s longstanding friendship with the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, a relationship that included (but was not at all limited to) Sitting Bull’s many years of performances as part of Bill’s Wild West Show. As this piece on the Buffalo Bill Center of the West website puts it, Native American performers like Sitting Bull “generally were treated and paid the same as other performers. They were able to travel with their families, and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations.” In this blog post on Native American pop culture performers I highlighted the actor Jay Silverheels, who had the chance to act in multiple mid-20th century Western films and as a result help change the way that medium depicted Native Americans; Sitting Bull reminds us that there was a longstanding legacy of such performers, one that connected to the equally complex and multi-layered genre of the Wild West Show.

Next Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Monday, June 24, 2024

June 24, 2024: WesternStudying: Hopalong Cassidy

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On how the TV show built on an established character, and two important ways it changed things.

When Hopalong Cassidy premiered on NBC on June 24th, 1949, it did so as an extension of nearly a half-century of cultural representations of the character. Hopalong was originally created in a 1904 short story by author Clarence E. Mulford, who would over the next thirty-five years write 28 novels and numerous additional stories about the character. Even more popular were the 66 films produced between 1935 and 1948 (for an average of nearly five films per year, if you’re counting), all starring William Boyd in the title role. So when Boyd bought the rights to the character from Mulford and to the films from producer Harry Sherman, sold those rights to NBC, and began playing the character in the TV series in June 1949 (and in a radio show that launched around the same moment), he knew that he and the show would have a built-in, longstanding, and multimedia audience, making this first TV Western not nearly as much of an unknown quantity as that phrase might suggest.

While the character might not have been new in 1949, the genre of the TV Western unquestionably was. Even though the first few episodes were edited versions of existing Hopalong films (before original TV episodes began to be produced and aired), they still aired once a week in a scheduled time slot on a national television network. And I would argue that this represented a significant evolution in the existing form of storytelling known as the serial—not the 19th century genre of serialized print publications that audiences could acquire and then read when and how they wanted; nor the early 20th century genre of film serials that required going to a movie theater to catch the new episode; but a serialized TV show, gradually released installments that every audience member would watch in their own home but all at precisely the same time (particularly in that early era before later evolutions like reruns and home video). Phrases like “appointment television” and “must see TV” emerged down the road to describe particular shows or time slots, but in truth those concepts were never more relevant than for this first generation of TV shows, which audiences had to see at that precise moment or risk missing out on that part of the story entirely.

Perhaps that serialization contributed to the immense popularity of the Hopalong TV show, or perhaps it was just the built-in audience for the character by then—but whatever the case, the show was indeed a mega-hit, and that popularity led to other significant cultural shifts. To cite one of the most individually striking examples, in 1950 the character of Hopalong Cassidy was the first licensed image featured on a children’s lunchbox, and shortly thereafter sales for the Aladdin Industries lunchboxes overall rose from 50,000 to 600,000 per year. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the more than $70 million worth of Hopalong products produced in 1950 alone, much of it directly targeted kids as the primary audience—as illustrated by the reference to “Hopalong boots” as a desired present in Meredith Wilson’s hit song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” (1951). Kids had no doubt been part of the audience for Western films (and books, and radio shows, and etc.) throughout the genre’s history, but the TV show’s popularity nonetheless reflected a potent evolution and emphasis of that children’s entertainment side to this cultural form.

Next Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Saturday, June 22, 2024

June 22-23, 2024: Kyle Railton on the Simpson Trial

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to this special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

Hey everyone, my name is Kyle Railton and I am an upcoming senior in high school. As you can tell by my last name, I am the son of the legendary professor Ben Railton, and writing for my dad’s blog has been on my bucket list for a while, so it is an honor to get the chance! I have been semi-interested in the O.J. Simpson trial for some time, hearing occasional things about how he was guilty, the lawyers messed up, the gloves, etc., but I only became very invested in the past year, when I began a school project about the case. It was in my American Legal Studies class, and I chose to read The Run of His Life, the book by Jeffery Toobin, which quickly fascinated me about every aspect of the case: the media, lawyers, drama, and especially the defendant–O.J. Simpson.  

As I continued to learn more about the case, a couple of parts of the case bothered me the most. I will preface this by stating that I do believe that O.J. committed the crime, despite the mistakes from the prosecution and the alternate theories proposed by the dream team. Firstly, I believe that the trial did not deliver justice, as America’s justice system is supposed to do, implied by the name. One of the main focuses of the American Legal elective I took this past school year was to study what justice was, and how courts are expected to promote justice through application of the law. However, I saw this entire case, specifically the outcome, as not proper justice, because many external factors influenced the not guilty verdict. For example, the media played a crucial role since the discovery of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, negatively affecting and manipulating perceptions of the trial to the public, even before the jury was selected. Many people saw the police as “mistreating” O.J. Simpson when rather the LAPD had treated O.J. Simpson like royalty many times in the past, and he was close with many officers. Additionally, race was almost certainly a deciding factor in the case, which was exacerbated by the media and constant coverage of the case. While it is obvious that Mark Furhman was extremely racist–a Nazi even–and the LAPD has a horrific history of racial prejudice and police brutality, these facts had nothing to do with O.J. Simpson’s case. As mentioned in Toobin’s book, they were specifically used as the “race card” to get Simpson free. The reason I see this as a massive injustice is because there is lots of racial profiling in the court system and police forces across America, but this case was not an instance of racist police officers framing an African American man. Now, it is completely understandable why many would believe that the LAPD framed O.J., but this use of the “race card” only opens the world up to criticism when actual racist incidents come, as they too often do because then Americans claim that it is just another use of the “race card.” I remember a hilarious quote from a show I watched with my family based on the O.J. trial, which goes something like, “O.J. Simpson is the first defendant to get acquitted because he is Black!” Race has never been a black-and-white subject in America, and while it is unfortunately impossible to change the past and convict O.J. Simpson, it is possible to build and grow as a nation, which starts with learning from the history of America’s complicated justice system. 

[Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?]

Friday, June 21, 2024

June 21, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On two of the many reasons to better remember the victims.

First things first: we don’t and shouldn’t need any reason to better remember the two people murdered in June 1994 beyond that simple and horrible fact. They and their families and loved ones were by far the most profoundly and tragically affected by this case, and there’s nothing more important to say than that. I’m going to leave this first paragraph short in order to make those points as clearly and concisely as I can.

Beyond those individual and most important reasons to include Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in a series like this one, it’s also the case that better remembering them helps add significant issues into the conversation. With Nicole, the most prominent such issue is an absolutely crucial and (due to many of the factors I’ve written about this week) at times frustratingly minimized one: domestic violence. While they were overshadowed by the Mark Fuhrman recordings (which certainly were horrific in their own ways, as I discussed in Tuesday’s post), the multiple recordings of Nicole calling 911 to report OJ’s incidents of domestic violence comprised one of the most blatant representations of these issues in our collective history, and were (or at least damn well should be) impossible to ignore. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the fact that the vast majority of mass shooters have histories of domestic or intimate violence that predate and seem clearly related to the explosions of mass violence, and in its own way the OJ trial overall and Nicole’s story specifically foreshadowed and can add to this 21st century conversation.

While Nicole’s murder was thus frustratingly and tragically predictable given that prior and escalating history of domestic violence, Ron Goldman’s murder could not have been more random, an incredibly horrific instance of “wrong place at the wrong time.” There are plenty of details of Goldman’s life and identity that would be worth highlighting to better remember him, from the overtly inspiring (such as his volunteer work with children suffering from cerebral palsy) to the tragically unfulfilled (such as his ambitions to open his own restaurant). But I would say the very fact of the randomness of Goldman’s murder, especially when linked to those details of his individual identity and life, makes an important point in its own right: that every victim of violence, such as all those killed in mass shootings, represents a fully, complicatedly, vitally three-dimensional human, with all the different layers, small and big, mundane and inspiring, that comprise us all. I’m not sure there’s a better reason to do everything we can to limit violence of all kinds, nor a better individual representation of those tragic realities than Ron Goldman.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?


Thursday, June 20, 2024

June 20, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Kato and Kardashian

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On how the trial shaped two forms of celebrity culture, and an important alternative.

The OJ trial was such a media circus (to the point that the very phrase “media circus” has become almost synonymous with these events) that it not only featured a celebrity client and celebrity defense attorney (both of which I wrote about in yesterday’s post), but also spawned a number of additional celebrities. There’s plenty of competition for which was the nuttiest—a list that includes the judge, for crying out loud—but I would have to declare OJ’s vagabond houseguest Kato Kaelin as the winner of that bizarre contest. I don’t know if Kato was the first person in American history to become and remain famous for being famous, with absolutely no discernible talents or achievements beyond the fame itself. But he most definitely exemplified that trend at a still-early period in its development—and given the ways in which over the subsequent three decades the genre of reality TV has created an entire cottage industry dedicated to producing countless more such famous-for-being-famous individuals and communities, it’s fair to say that no legacy of the OJ trial was more culturally significant than that of Kato Kaelin’s bizarre yet inarguable celebrity status.

I don’t think any 21st century individuals better exemplify that famous-for-being-famous trend than do the Kardashians, and it’s thus far from a coincidence that that family’s rise to fame likewise began with the OJ trial. Entrepreneur and attorney Robert Kardashian wasn’t just a longtime friend of OJ Simpson’s who became part of his defense team; he was also a thoroughly private citizen who through those contexts and events became one of that moment’s most public and famous figures. Or, more exactly and even more tellingly, whose own fleeting such fame in 1994-5 helped open the door for multi-generational familial fame over the subsequent decades, for his ex-wife Kris Houghton (formerly Kardashian) (now Jenner) and their four children (Kourtney, Kim, Khlo√©, and Rob Kardashian) to become one of the 21st century’s most wealthy and influential media empires (I wish that felt more like hyperbole than it does). Individual fame like Kato Kaelin’s is striking but relatively powerless; Kardashian-level fame brings with it a great deal of 21st century power.

That final hyperlink is to Kim Kardashian’s podcast The System, which highlights the case of a wrongfully-accused and -incarcerated individual (Kevin Keith) in an effort to change the criminal justice system more broadly. When it comes to this week’s blog subject, obviously there are complicated OJ trial echoes around the phrase “wrongfully accused,” although I genuinely don’t imagine Kim is making that connection. But I would also highlight one of the more striking individual scenes from The People v. O.J. Simpson, depicting Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) at a Father’s Day brunch with his four kids. Kardashian’s fame is on the rise and his kids are excited, but he instructs them that “in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting, it’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.” Of course the moment (a fictional one created by the show’s writers) feels deeply ironic given what would go to happen to those four kids. But I would argue that Kim’s podcast reflects the continued presence of this alternative possibility, for this family and for all of us—not one that opposes fame or celebrity per se (they will always be part of our society), but one in which meaningful actions remain more important than fame.

Last figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

June 19, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Johnnie Cochran

 [On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On two distinct and even opposed sides to a legal career, and how they complicatedly came together in the OJ trial.

In his autobiography A Lawyer’s Life (2001), Johnnie Cochran (1937-2005) writes about how Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) helped inspire his lifelong legal activism. Marshall, Cochran writes, “confirmed that a single dedicated man could use the law to change society.” As Cochran’s own legal career began to take shape in the 1960s and 70s (particularly after he left the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office to start his own private practice), he consistently represented African American clients who were also underdogs, fighting against institutional racism and other layers to the white justice system and power structure. Whether he lost those cases (as with Leonard Deadwyler, killed by the LAPD while driving his pregnant and in-labor wife to the hospital in 1966) or won them (as with Ron Settles, a college athlete who died while in police custody in 1981 and whose family received a sizeable settlement from the city), Cochran established himself over these decades as a preeminent voice using the law for both civil rights and challenges to the powers that be.

At the same time, that evolving career gained Cochran prominence as a successful defense attorney, a role that offered him opportunities to defend celebrity clients. One of the most famous and controversial such clients in the years before the OJ trial was Michael Jackson, whom Cochran defended when he was accused of child molestation in 1993; Cochran was instrumental in helping Jackson settle that case out of court with the accusers’ families. (Cochran’s final case was another such famous celebrity trial, helping get Sean (P. Diddy) Combs acquitted on bribery and weapons charges in 2001.) The vast majority of those celebrity defendants were likewise African American, a clear and important throughline in Cochran’s legal work and career to be sure. Yet by nature of their celebrity, wealth, networks of influence, and other factors, those defendants were much more part of the power structure than opposed to it, and in a case like Jackson’s it’s fair to say that Cochran also used the power structure to help Jackson reach that private settlement and avoid any legal repercussions to the troubling charges levied against him.

Any defense attorney who practices for decades is going to have multiple, varied, and even opposed types of clients, of course. But these layers to Cochran’s career were particularly complicated in their relationship to each other, and nowhere was that complexity more noteworthy than in the OJ trial. As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, Cochran and the team based a significant portion of their defense on the LAPD’s histories of institutional racism and police brutality, linking Cochran’s legal activism to OJ’s status as a Black man accused (and potentially, they argued, framed) by that power structure. Yet at the same time, as I wrote in Monday’s post, by the 1990s OJ was a wealthy celebrity, and one who had a famously friendly relationship with the police prior to his arrest. Cochran famously noted that he worked “not only for the OJs, but also the No Js,” a statement that both reflects his overarching career ambitions and yet acknowledges (or at least implies) that this particular case diverged from those goals. Did the OJ case also undermine those broader and inspiring civil rights efforts of Cochran’s? That’s a much bigger question than a blog post—one of many crucial ones raised by this case.

Next figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

June 18, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Mark Fuhrman

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On a longstanding context for the trial’s most infamous figure, what he frustratingly added, and where it’s gone since.

As I highlighted at the end of yesterday’s post, the Simpson trial can’t be separated from a very recent example of LAPD racism and brutality, the Rodney King beating. Back in a 2019 post I linked the Rodney King story to a pair of much earlier and even more sweeping LAPD horrors, and I’d ask you to check out that post and then come on back for some further Simpson trial thoughts.

Welcome back! That longstanding, if not indeed foundational, intersection of the LAPD with stories of institutional racism and police brutality offers a crucial context for a story that came to dominate much of the Simpson trial: that lead detective Mark Fuhrman was an inveterate racist who had brought that perspective into every part of his job, and thus (the defense argued) could conceivably have framed Simpson for the murders. The defense could make that argument in large part because of a striking and shocking layer to this story: that there existed hours of recordings of Fuhrman spewing his racism and hate, drawn from a series of conversations (beginning in 1985 and all the way up to 1994) with screenwriter Laura McKinny who was working on a script about police. Not unlike what I said in yesterday’s post about the cable news coverage angle of the arrest and trial, this multimedia evidence for LAPD racism and corruption represented a significant evolution of prior histories, and unquestionably changed the course of the trial and history as a result.

As you might expect, Mark Fuhrman didn’t keep his job after those recordings were made public—even the LAPD apparently has its limits when it comes to racist cops (or perhaps to convicted perjurers, since Fuhrman pleaded no contest to perjury charges stemming from the trial). In the decades since he has become a prominent media commentator on all things law enforcement and the justice system, writing books, hosting his own short-lived daytime talk radio show, and, most tellingly I would argue, as a Fox News pundit (WARNING: that’s a direct link to a short video from Fox News). I call that last job most telling because over the three decades since the Simpson trial, police brutality and even racism have gone from clearly agreed-upon flaws of the system to, for a significant percentage of Americans it seems, necessary features of that system. To hear Mark Motherfucking Fuhrman call teenager Mike Brown “the aggressor” in the 2014 police shooting that led to Brown’s death is not just to find one’s self through the looking glass, but to get a particularly clear sense of how these conversations and issues have changed over the last three decades.

Next figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Monday, June 17, 2024

June 17, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: O.J. Simpson

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On how OJ reflected celebrity culture, how he changed it, and what can’t be captured by that frame.

At the time of his 1994 arrest, O.J. Simpson was likely best known to many Americans for his supporting role as Detective Nordberg in the popular Naked Gun comedies; the third and final such film, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) had been released in theaters just a few months before the arrest. Simpson wasn’t the first famous athlete to act in a comedy from the filmmakers responsible for the Naked Gun series, nor was he the first famous football player (or even running back) to parlay that sports success into an acting career. Indeed, if the rise of celebrity culture was a central element of American society in the second half of the 20th century, sports celebrities, and more exactly athletes who crossed over into other cultural media and broader overarching fame, were quite representative of that trend. In that sense Simpson in the 1980s and 90s was just an example of a much larger set of trends, and likely not one who would have particularly stood out from the crowd were it not for everything that happened in and after 1994.

When those shocking 1994 events transpired, however, O.J. Simpson’s brand of celebrity changed, and I would argue that this story likewise changed celebrity coverage and culture overall. The infamous white Bronco chase is an especially telling case in point: this wasn’t a celebrity appearing on screen intentionally, in projects like films or TV shows that reflect choices and career and contribute to a crafted image; these were raw, unfiltered videos of a celebrity fleeing accusations of (and arrest for) having committed a heinous crime, pursued by law enforcement, threatening his own life, surrounded by gawkers and paparazzi alike, chaotic glimpses into the hardest and darkest realities of life to which any of us might be connected. Of course there had been celebrity criminals and trials before, and public obsessions with figures like Bonnie & Clyde or Wild West outlaws. But this was perhaps the first 24/7 cable news celebrity crime story, and so again I would argue that in these moments Simpson became and remained a distinctly different form of celebrity than we had ever seen before.

That new form of celebrity unquestionably influenced the trial as well, as I’ll continue considering in later posts in this series. But the People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) TV show, which I recently rewatched with my sons due to the American Legal class connection you’ll hear more about in the weekend post, starts with clips from a very different news story and its cable news coverage: the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers involved, and the resulting LA riots. And I would agree with the show’s implication there (and will explore layers to these themes in my next couple posts), that a great deal of what unfolded in the Simpson trial had more to do with those contexts of race, justice, and community than it did with celebrity culture. In a justifiably famous moment from the show, O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) exclaims, “I’m not Black! I’m O.J.!” But however famous Simpson had become, he was also still Black, and at the very least we can’t separate his celebrity from those communal contexts.

Next figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 15, 2024

June 15-16, 2024: Ocean State Histories: Further Reading

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to this special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

On five works that should be on any Little Rhodey reading list.

1)      William McLoughlin, Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History (1978): From what I can tell, there isn’t a more recent book-length history of the colony and state, and certainly not one as comprehensive as McLoughlin’s.

2)      John Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (2012): I hope this week’s series has made clear how much more there is to Rhode Island than just Roger Williams—but there’s no way to tell the story of the Ocean State that doesn’t include its founder in a prominent role. Of the many bios and analyses, Barry’s seems particularly interesting in its sense of what it would mean to likewise see Williams as an American origin point.

3)      S.T. Joshi, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013): Weird Tale expert Joshi published a one-volume bio of Providence’s own Lovecraft in 1996, but apparently it was significantly cut from his original manuscript; this two-volume edition captures the full scope of Joshi’s biography of the complex, dark in every sense, foundational speculative author who is unquestionably Rhode Island’s most famous literary legacy.

4)      Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (2016): I’ve written multiple times in this space, including in Monday’s post on Roger Williams, about Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (2016). Perhaps Warren’s scope is broader than Clark-Pujara’s project (published in the same year), but that just means they complement each other, with Clark-Pujara able to dive far more deeply into the histories and legacies of slavery in Rhode Island.

5)      Sowams Heritage Area website (2017+): Scholarly and historical writing no longer happen only in hard-copy publications, of course (and duh, since you’re reading this blog). After I wrote this July 4th column on Bristol in 2022, I was contacted by Dave Weed, the historian who runs the Sowams Heritage Area website and publishes its blog, newsletter, and other layers to this important local history work. I’ve learned a lot from Weed and the site, and would recommend them to anyone interested in Rhode Island histories and stories—which, as I hope this week has made clear, are all of ours.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State texts or histories you’d highlight?

Friday, June 14, 2024

June 14, 2024: Ocean State Histories: The Gilded Age

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to a special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

On two ways to think about Rhode Island’s famous role in Gilded Age America.

Once again I’ll begin this post by asking you to peruse prior writing of mine, in this case my September 2013 blog series on Newport stories (inspired by my first visit to the historic home The Breakers). If five posts is too much of an ask, you ]can focus in particular on the Friday culmination, a post on the question of whether we should preserve such Gilded Age mansions.

Welcome back! In that Friday post I quoted the famous “white elephants” line from Henry James’ “The Sense of Newport” (1906), an essay that he originally published in Harper’s and then turned into a chapter in his interesting travel and autobiographical book The American Scene (1907). James uses that phrase as part of a concluding paragraph in which he absolutely lambasts both the mansions and the Gilded Age culture of embarrassing excess they reflect, building to his banger of a final sentence for the essay/chapter, “The answer to which, I think, can only be that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank, for reminder to those concerned of the prohibited degrees of witlessness, and of the peculiarly awkward vengeances of affronted proportion and discretion.” In our own moment of excess and McMansions and an even more flagrantly rich 1% and so on, we could stand to reread and learn from James on those Newport white elephants.

As much as the Newport mansions reflected specific Gilded Age contexts, however, it’s equally (if not indeed more) important to link them to the historical anniversary that is the reason for this week’s Rhode Island Studying series. For one thing, there’s no doubt that a good bit of the wealth of places like Newport was inherited and generational wealth tied to the fortunes built by and through the slave trade and slavery in the colony and state (which didn’t abolish slavery itself until its 1843 Constitution). And for another thing, while of course much of the wealth that build Newport’s Gilded Age mansions came from individuals and families who were not part of Rhode Island history, that only meant that they were even more consistently linked to national legacies of slavery—as exemplified by the Vanderbilts, the family behind The Breakers. So on both those levels, as an extension of Rhode Island history and a reflection of American history, Gilded Age Newport was not something new so much as an embarrassing reminder of the worst of our foundational stories.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 13, 2024

June 13, 2024: Ocean State Histories: The Slave Trade

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to a special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

On two significant layers to Rhode Island’s groundbreaking 1774 Act.

I wrote at length about the history of the slave trade and slavery more broadly in Rhode Island for this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, so in lieu of a full first paragraph I’ll ask you to check out that column and then come on back for further thoughts.

Welcome back! I’ve written a good bit over the years, here and elsewhere, in relationship to various contexts, about how and why we need to better remember that slavery existed throughout the colonies at the time of the Revolution. While that was true for every New England colony, it was doubly true for Rhode Island given Bristol’s central role in the slave trade (a principal subject of that Post column). Which makes it that much more important and impressive that it was Rhode Island which became the first colony to ban the slave trade, and which just as importantly did so, as this article on the 1774 Act notes by quoting a Journal of the American Revolution article from historian Christian McBurney, by “addressing the evils and inconsistencies of slavery as a whole, and not just the slave trade.” Given that fifteen years later the U.S. Constitution itself would only address the slave trade, and not slavery as a whole, Rhode Island here really modeled a far more sweeping and inclusive vision of community.

There were various factors which contributed to that moment and model, but certainly a central one was the colony’s large Quaker community. The most direct predecessor to the 1774 Act was a 1772 formal denunciation of slavery by the Rhode Island Society of Friends, a denunciation co-authored by colonial leader Stephen Hopkins (who would also draft the Preamble to the 1774 Act). And just a few months, Hopkins an authored an even more impassioned attack on slavery in a document freeing his own enslaved person Saint Jago, writing that “keeping any of his rational Creatures in Bondage, who are capable of taking care of, and providing for themselves in a State of Freedom, is altogether inconsistent with his Holy and Righteous Will.” Hopkins would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence on behalf of Rhode Island, reminding us that while slaveholding was frustratingly part of the identities of too many American Framers, opposition to slavery was likewise part of the Revolutionary moment, and nowhere more potently than in Rhode Island.

Last Rhode Island history tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

June 12, 2024: Ocean State Histories: Beavertail Lighthouse

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to a special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

Three telling moments in the history of the third oldest American lighthouse.

1)      Revolutionary shifts: After years of petitions and plans, a lighthouse was finally built on Beavertail Point, at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, in 1749. Less than thirty years later, in December 1776, the British occupied nearby Newport, controlling the city and its region and waterways for nearly three years. When the Continental Army forced the British to retreat in October 1779, they burned the lighthouse nearly to the ground on their way out and took the light with them. In the years after the Revolution the light was rebuilt and –assembled, but this wasn’t the only Revolutionary change, as the 1789 Congressional Lighthouse Act took over federal control of all the nation’s lighthouses and made Newport’s customs collector (and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence), William Ellery, Beavertail’s first superintendent. Each of these shifts reflects how much the Revolution and its military and political aftermaths affected every place and part of the American landscape.

2)      Industrialization’s influences: An 1851 report described the original wooden lighthouse as the “worst built tower yet seen,” and by 1856 a new, granite lighthouse with all new illuminating equipment and a fog signal (utilizing compressed air, invented by Connecticut’s Celabon Leeds Daboll, and known as the Daboll trumpet), had been completed (and remains in operation to this day). That process and its details alone suggests the impact of industrialization and its effects on American society and culture. Yet the next few years saw even more innovations, including the 1857 installation of the nation’s first steam whistle and in 1866 another new fog signal, this one based on a hot air process developed by Swedish American engineer and inventor John Ericsson (designer of the famous Civil War ironclad the Monitor). It’s easy to think of lighthouses as relatively unchanging parts of a nation’s landscape, but Beavertail reflects just how much invention and industrialization impacted the light and helped revolutionize the society around it at the same time.

3)      The Hurricane of 1938: It certainly has competition, but by most accounts the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 remains the worst storm ever recorded in New England. While lighthouses are of course intended to aid in such conditions, it’s also fair to say that they—and their keepers and inhabitants—are among the most vulnerable and threatened spots in any storm. Carl Chellis, who had been Beavertail keeper for less than a year when the hurricane hit in late September, survived the storm, but his young daughter died when her school bus was thrown by the wind; assistant keeper Edward Donahue leapt into the water to survive a collapsing engine room and was rescued when his son dove in after him. Further out in Narragansett Bay the storm produced an even more tragic result, as Whale Rock Lighthouse was entirely destroyed and its assistant keeper Walter Eberle (a Navy veteran determined to keep the lighthouse working during the storm) killed. I’d like to think that with today’s technologies such tragedies could be averted, and of course lighthouses are now automated rather than kept by hand; but hurricanes, whether in these Beavertail histories or in our own era, remain primal reminders of those things no human advances can control.

Next Rhode Island history tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

June 11, 2024: Ocean State Histories: The Name

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to a special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

Two debates over the Ocean State’s name, and why we should better remember it in any case.

I don’t think it’s common knowledge, even up here in New England, but up until 2020 Little Rhody’s full name was the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. That lengthy appellation was due to the combination of two initially separate English colonies, the Rhode Island colony (which included Newport, Narragansett Bay, and Portsmouth) and Roger Williams’ Providence Plantations (which evolved into the city of Providence). While the word “plantation” in the latter name likely originated (as it did for William Bradford’s naming of Plimoth Plantation to the north) in the concept of the “plantations of God” (a phrase still in use in the 1830s, as illustrated by a quote from Emerson’s “Nature”), it nonetheless conjures up unfortunately histories of oppression and slavery (of both Native and African Americans), ones to which Rhode Island like all New England was certainly linked. Because of those echoes, the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2009 initiated a referendum to drop the Providence Plantations part of the state’s official name—but by a wide majority (78% to 22%) Rhode Islanders voted in November 2010 to keep the full name as is. (It was finally changed after another November 2020 vote.)

The history of the Rhode Island part of the state’s name is less controversial, but still a source of uncertainty and debate. The phrase initially referred to a specific area known by its Native American name, Aquidneck Island, and settled by English followers of Anne Hutchinson in 1636; Roger Williams first used the name “Rhode Island” for that region in 1637, and in 1644 the Rhode Island General Court decreed that “Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Isle of Rodes or Rhode-Island.” But the origins of the “Rhode” part remain in doubt, with at least two competing historical theories: that it was derived from Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano’s likening the island to the Greek isle of Rhodes during his 1524 voyage through Narragansett Bay, and the English utilized his comparison in naming the island upon their arrival; or that it derives instead from Dutch explorer Adriaen Block’s description of the area as “an island of Reddish appearance” in a 1625 account of his own voyage through the region, which the Dutch word “rodlich” transformed into “Rhode” in English. It’s of course entirely possible that both of these moments and perspectives played a role in the English take, and that even by the 1630s (much less in our own far more distant era) the name represented a murky combination of factors.

It’s precisely those multiple factors and histories that make it so important for us to better remember every part of the name “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” though. As I wrote in Monday’s post, Roger Williams’ role in founding the English colony is I believe relatively familiar, although there’s plenty more we can and should remember about that inspiring individual. But if we can recognize that even America’s smallest state represents a combination of the journeys and followers of Williams and Anne Hutchinson, of the native histories of Aquidneck and Narragansett (a 30,000 year old Native American tribe that played a key role in every colonial New England history and continues to evolve in our own era), and of Italian and Dutch explorers and perspectives, among other moments and influences, then we can start to truly appreciate the cross-cultural origins and evolutions of each and every part of our nation. Not so little at all, Rhody.

Next Rhode Island history tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State stories you’d highlight?