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Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, 2010: Five for Five

Five years ago today, at about 8 o’clock in the morning, my older son Aidan was born. I thought about taking on another one of those generally agreed-upon narratives for this post—the one that says that the second your child is born you are consumed by a love like no other, and that every second with the new child is this perfect new high that you never before knew or imagined; I agree that such emotions are present, but I think that much of the first month or two (especially) with a newborn is consumed by exhaustion and frustration and craziness, and I believe that the more I can let new parents and parents-to-be in on the fact that they shouldn’t feel guilty about the love not being all that they immediately feel and not always even the main thing, the better (since I hadn’t really known much of that and so did feel guilty at some of those times when exhaustion or frustration were the main things)—and, well, I guess I just kind of did take on that narrative. For a paragraph, anyway.
But to keep things slightly more topical to this blog’s focal points, and yet still to honor this occasion and do things a bit differently today, I decided for the rest of this post to highlight five plans that I have for the blog for 2011. Almost all of them, as you’ll see, really depend mostly or even entirely on you guys, so pay attention (although there won’t be a quiz later)!
1)      Making it easier to find past entries. Couple of ways I plan to do this, hopefully in the next couple weeks: creating a Chronological Topic Archive where every entry’s main subject(s) are highlighted, since I know the entry titles don’t usually make them clear; and creating a Category Index where you can find all the entries that focus especially on (for example) movies, or novels, or a historical event, or etc. (Addition: I do, I just learned, already have a Search function; the box at the upper left allows you to search just this blog. So there's that already, anyway.)
2)      Leaving one link open for each entry. I don’t plan on cutting one of the existing two out, but rather making it three links to start with and leaving the third one open. Partly that’s so (in response to a good suggestion) I can add another link down the road if I see something that relates to a past entry. But even more ideally, this would be so that if you read an entry and know of something (anything) that relates, you can let me know, whether in comments or by email (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu), and I’ll try to add it.
3)      Including guest posts. My ideal here is that one post per week (probably on a particular day, such as Saturday) will be written by a guest blogger, on a topic of his or her choice. I have a bunch of people in mind whom I’ll be contacting to solicit potential posts, but am always also open to suggestions, whether self-nominations or people you’d love to hear from in this space; again, you can let me know that either in comments or by email.
4)      Taking requests. Is there a particular historical issue or event, or a figure, or a text or work of any kind, or a ______, that you’re interested in reading and thinking more about? Well, obviously I’d encourage you to read and think (and write!) about it yourself, but while you’re doing so I’d definitely love the opportunity to do so as well, and I’m sure I’d learn a ton in the process. So requests for topics, again whether in comments or by email, will be greatly appreciated, and I’ll try to post on them very soon after the request is made (since my daily schedule is entirely flexible).
5)      Including my own work a bit more fully. Another couple of requests have related to this, and while I don’t want the blog to become even vaguely just a mirror of my scholarly work (it’s a parallel to it for sure, and I would say ideally a part of it since I’m trying to make that work more public in every sense, but it’s its own thing and I like it that way), I certainly don’t want to act as if that work isn’t engaged with many of these same questions and issues and texts and topics. And so I think I’ll try to focus another one entry per week (again maybe on the same day each week, perhaps Sunday) on something that I’m working on in my scholarly work in one way or another.
That’s it for now! Thanks for reading, happy 2011, and more tomorrow, on one of my favorite recent American texts, a work that uses the holiday season in general and the New Year’s holiday specifically in very prominent structural and thematic roles.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with, as a little preview of that guest blogging thing:
1)      Musings on life, family, society, politics, sports, and plenty more from one of the best students and American Studiers I’ve ever worked with: http://pathbeater.com/
2)      She says it’s just about reading, but luckily this friend and fellow prof has felt free to venture into a wide and interesting variety of other interests too: http://liberalreader.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30, 2010: Divorced from Reality?

One of my central goals in starting this blog was that I would engage directly not only with American things that we have forgotten or ignored, but also and just as significantly with narratives that have become commonplace or agreed-upon (as much as any can be in a nation as big and diverse as ours). After all, such narratives are, to my mind, almost by default overly simplistic, depend on eliding or at least minimizing other crucial stories or voices, and generally make it harder for us to remember and understand the complexities of who and what we have been, are, and could be. One of the most agreed-upon of those narratives, at least when it comes to our contemporary moment, is that divorce has become much more common and accepted in our current national culture than it had ever been in the past, and this one might seem impossible for me to try to revise; although statistics about marriage and divorce in prior centuries are likely far from accurate (and while, relatedly, many more marriages might have ended without legal divorce and thus without record in those earlier eras), there are no existing measures by which it would be possible for me to argue with the “more common” part of that narrative, since the percentage of marriages that end in divorce has been far higher over the last few decades than at any other measured moment in our history.
But “more accepted,” well, that’s where I think things get a bit complicated. That’s at least as central a part of the existing narratives, the idea that divorce used to be frowned upon, was considered a last resort at best; whether the person advancing that narrative wants to see the change as a relatively positive thing (related to women having more rights and freedoms, to more awareness of abuse, etc), a relatively negative thing (caused by the excessive freedoms of the 60s and 70s, linked to a decline in religious faith in America, etc), or just to assess more objectively the causes and effects of the shift, virtually every argument about divorce relies centrally on the “more accepted” part of the narrative. And maybe that part’s accurate too, but it’s a lot more of an analytical position than a fact, and a position that has definitely been contested—most overtly and thoroughly by Glenda Riley, whose Divorce: An American Tradition (1991) goes to great and pretty convincing lengths to argue that “American divorce has a long and venerable history,” one dating back to the Puritans, and thus to develop the case that “the institution of American divorce was vital, and growing, long before late twentieth-century Americans carried it to its current state.” Riley is careful not to look past the definite differences in laws and practices in each of the historical moments that she surveys, but does provide an overall and important counter-argument to any facile assertion about how Americans “used to feel” about divorce; any subsequent argument for that position which doesn’t grapple with hers seems to me clearly to be accepting the narrative without adequate investigation or analysis.
If we leave aside for a moment the question of whether divorce is more accepted now than it has ever been, and simply acknowledge Riley’s ultimate point, that in one form or another it has been a part of American society from its origins, that move frees us to examine different moments and cases, as well as different representations and images, of divorce throughout our history. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the founding and most central voices of American literary realism, William Dean Howells, grappled with the issue in an impressive early novel, A Modern Instance (1882). Of the many reasons why Instance is well worth our attention and readings, I would highlight two distinct and even contrasting ones, both related to American realism’s overarching objectives and elements. On the one hand, Howells’ construction of realistic and deeply human characters was never more successful than in this novel, and the result is a truly multi-dimensional and ultimately heart-breaking picture of the dissolution of a once-happy marriage between two good and earnest people trying their best to make their personal and professional lives together work. But on the other hand, his narrator (who, like many realistic narrators, has clear and particular views of the society and issues about which he’s writing) cannot resist making some final (somewhat implicit, but certainly present) judgments about what has happened to those characters and why it has happened; and, interestingly enough, his direct connection of the marriage’s downfall to troubling elements of “modern” society (circa 1882) feels very similar to many current critiques about the elements of late 20th- and early 21st-century American society that have made (in this view) divorce so prevalent and accepted in our own time.
It’s nearly impossible to think about an issue like divorce without seeking to analyze, and then almost inevitably to judge, causes and effects in one way or another, and I don’t blame either Howells or any other social and cultural historian or critic for their efforts in that vein. But as Riley’s book helps us to see, one key is to make sure that we’re developing those analyses as accurately and with as much complexity—and in as earnest conversation with prior such analyses—as possible. And as Howells’ book most definitely highlights, it’s worth remembering that every divorce, far from being a simple statistic, represents a difficult and unhappy situation for (at least) two individual and multi-dimensional identities and lives. More tomorrow, a special New Year’s Eve post on both one of the most important events in my past and some of my plans for this blog in 2011.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The full text of A Modern Instance: http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Modern-Instance.html


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010: Re-viewing the Classics

A good while back I was doing some scholarly work with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), and as a tangential but not unimportant part of that work I talked to a number of colleagues and friends about their experiences with the novel; all of the ones who had experiences to share turned out to be female, but I wasn’t framing it through the lens of gender and don’t think that my point here should be either. As I was focusing my scholarly attention specifically on Mitchell’s portrayals of racial issues, I similarly focused my questions on those issues, but found that in each and every case my interviewees (all smart and thoughtful people prone by both nature and training to analyze most everything) really hadn’t thought much at all about race in the novel. They recognized that it was in there and that, as one would expect from a historical novel set in the pre- and post-Civil War era and written in the 1930s South to boot, it didn’t feature the most enlightened depiction of race. But for all of these readers, that had been a very minor and insignificant aspect of the novel, certainly not one that had interfered with (or even really registered amidst) their enjoyment of its plot threads and character arcs and relationships and action pieces and emotional shifts and everything else that made it the beloved uber-bestseller that it was and remains.
To some degree, I think the same process happened for many decades (at least) with D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The racial politics of Griffith’s film, and particularly its portrait of race in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, are similar to but much more overt and central than those in Mitchell’s novel; to cite one similarity with that difference in degree, Mitchell’s novel features a heroic Ku Klux Klan raid led by one of its male heroes (a scene that none of my interviewees remembered at all), but Griffith’s film climaxes with the KKK riding to save the day and the film’s hero and heroine from marauding African Americans and Northern carpetbaggers (the movie’s original title was even The Clansman). Yet Griffith’s film was not only the first genuine blockbuster, a hugely successful financial and critical triumph that fundamentally influenced American filmmaking from then on; it remained for many decades a critical darling, and as recently as 1998 was slotted at #44 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Movies retrospective. Certainly the film’s landmark technological advancements might merit such continued praise—and certainly recent critical appraisals have grappled with the film’s racial politics much more fully than had my Mitchell interviewees—but nonetheless, for a movie that climaxes with a heroic KKK ride (and that allegedly was used by that organization for recruiting purposes until at least the 1970s) to receive such critical esteem suggests at least a bit of the same kind of cognitive dissonance that Mitchell’s novel evokes.
At the very least, I would argue that no mention of Griffith’s film in any such list should fail to include the two much less successful but interesting and important films that were made in direct response to it. Both were created by African American activists, if in different ways and with very distinct emphases: Booker T. Washington and his assistant Emmett Scott worked with the NAACP to develop the project that would become Birth of a Race (1918), a World War I-set epic featuring two African American brothers who parallel but invert the wartime experiences of Griffith’s protagonists; and novelist Oscar Micheaux created and directed Within Our Gates (1920), a film that focused much more explicitly on issues of race, lynching, miscegenation, and the legacies of slavery and Reconstruction in the South. Neither film was successful in its own era, and both have been almost entirely forgotten since (Gates in fact disappeared until a single print was discovered in Spain in the 1970s), and that’s not without some cause; if we can recognize the technological and artistic achievements of Griffith’s film, we must likewise note that these two are in neither sense impressive. But each nonetheless features images and moments that not only challenge Griffith’s already-iconic ones but also would force American audiences to re-view our sense of our history and identity: a pivotal shot in Race of white and black soldiers heading to Europe together for action in World War I; the surprisingly graphic and brutal lynching sequences in Gates. Films don’t have to make Best Of lists to be well worth our attention.
It will come as no surprise to anybody who has read this blog for even a short time that my ideal would be not at all to replace Griffith’s film with one or both of these responses; instead, I think the best case scenario would be one in which we watch all three films, both to consider how they form a conversation around a number of crucial shared themes (not only race, but also family and war, among others) and to analyze American filmmaking and culture and identity in the late 1910s and beyond. There’s no reason to stop engaging with the classics, but we certainly should re-view them with as much context and complexity as possible. More tomorrow, on one of our greatest realist authors and his heart-breaking novel of divorce.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Pretty grainy, but here’s the KKK-featuring climactic sequence of Birth of a Nation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k57rt58vUYw
2)      Part 1 of Within our Gates (the full film is available in multiple parts): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-hRj08_DU

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28, 2010: Early to Bed, Early to Rise, and Watch Out for Those Germans!

I’ve written elsewhere in this space about Emma Lazarus’ impressive sentiments on immigration, as expressed in her sonnet “The New Colossus”; as I wrote there, while she might seem superficially to be simply echoing national ideals about our welcoming nature and melting pot society, I would argue that her emphasis on accepting the “wretched refuse” of other nations puts her ideas in explicit contrast to many of our national anti-immigration narratives and arguments, such as those being articulated in her own era to bolster support for laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. That is, many such anti-immigration voices have tried to portray themselves as generally in favor of immigration, but opposed in this particular case, when it comes to this particular group, because of the undesirable nature of those who are arriving. The most succinct example of this phenomenon was articulated, not surprisingly, by Lou Dobbs, who once claimed on his CNN show that he isn’t xenophobic, he just doesn’t like other nations dumping their trash on us.
Similarly, many anti-immigrant arguments depend on one version or another of the sentiment that it’s different this time, with this group—that prior generations and communities of immigrants have worked to assimilate, to learn English, to become part of our society, and so on, but that this particular group is not willing to do so, is instead seeking to change our nation to become more like them. Exemplifying such arguments is another text with which I have already grappled in this space, Pat Buchanan’s abhorrent post-Virginia Tech piece, where Buchanan writes of the thirty-six million Asian American immigrants who have arrived—invaded, is his word—since the 1965 Immigration Act that “almost all [came] from countries whose peoples have never fully assimilated in any Western country.” Since Pat is writing about my in-laws and my wife (and half of my boys to boot), it goes without saying that I have one or two problems with this assertion; but leaving aside any personal connections, perhaps the biggest problem with these “it’s different this time, with this group” arguments is that they’ve been made, erroneously, in opposition to various immigrant arrivals and groups for at least two hundred fifty years of American history.
Those making this argument might be deeply ignorant of our history, but they can take solace in the fact that one of the first Americans to make the same ignorant argument was also one of our smartest and most talented national icons. In the midst of his 1751 socio-historical study “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc,” Ben Franklin wondered why his state of Pennsylvania, “founded by the English, [should] become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.” Anyone who wrote as voluminously as Franklin was bound to be wrong plenty of the time (and I’m not trying to use an individual such instance to downplay his amazing life and successes, nor his generally forward-thinking and tolerant nature), but what’s striking about this moment in retrospect is less the inaccuracy of his prediction and more the silliness of it, and of how much even a visionary like Franklin can become the worst angel of his nature through the influence of xenophobic fears (or maybe just a dislike of bratwurst).
Call me an idealist, but it seems to me that if those making arguments like these about Asian or Hispanic American immigrants could see Franklin’s text and recognize that silliness, it might make them second-guess a bit their own certainty about this time and this particular group and how in their case we had better be afraid of what kind of America they might produce.  At the very least, Franklin’s case can remind us that we have always been this kind of America, a mixed and multi-national and multi-lingual one, driven by the worst kinds of fears yet also, as Lazarus reminds us, the best kinds of hopes. More tomorrow, on the flawed, forgotten, and fantastic little movie that pushed back against the first American blockbuster.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The excerpt of Franklin’s “Observations” that includes the anti-German fears (which are under number 23): http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/increase.htm
2)      To link yesterday and today’s entries, a short and somewhat contemporary but still historically engaged (including reference to Franklin) take on immigration and education (and note that at least a few of the commenters argue directly that when it comes to Hispanic immigrants, it’s different this time, with this group): http://toped.svefoundation.org/2010/06/04/new-immigrants-same-old-confounding-issue/

Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 2010: Is Our Children Learning?

As Mark Twain knew, statistics can be twisted into just about any pretzel of logic and argument we would like them to occupy, and I’m doubly suspicious of them when it comes to political debates over budgets and deficits and the like. But with that caveat, one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time was an article on what could be done with the roughly $60 billion a year (inflation-adjusted) that it cost to extend the Bush tax cuts on those families making more than 250K a year; and the most depressing single item noted that those billions would pay for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year old American children, with relatively small class sizes. I have a filial obligation to support preschool for every kid who’s lucky enough to have the opportunity, but even if I didn’t, my own experiences—first as a preschooler, now and more cognizantly as the parent of two—, not to mention the many, many studies I’ve seen on the difference it makes for a kid to have at least some preschool experience before starting kindergarten, would more than convince me of the amazing benefit that such universal preschool could provide for our struggling education system (to say nothing of many other social and cultural benefits).
Whenever I start making any argument in support of preschool, or frankly any education-related argument period, it makes me think of one of the most impressive and erudite and wide-ranging American philosophers and activists—and definitely the only one who is I believe widely known solely for an idea that, while practical and useful, wasn’t his own. That thinker is John Dewey (1859-1952), the Progressive, populist, and pragmatist philosopher who was for many decades one of America’s leading scholarly and public experts on, among other things, education, psychology, logic, democracy, journalism and its role in the public sphere, contemporary politics, and humanism; but not, ironically enough, library sciences (the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, during Dewey’s lifetime, but by Melvil Dewey). Even just a list of his close personal and professional relationships reveals many of the most significant and impressive thinkers and voices and efforts of the end of the 19th and opening of the 20th centuries: he founded The New School with Charles Beard and Thorstein Veblen; he worked with William James and his ideas of pragmatism to develop (with a cohort of students) the study of functional psychology; he exchanged letters for many years on a variety of issues with Jane Addams; he edited with Horace Kallen a series of articles defending academic freedom in response to the Bertrand Russell case; and he played a small but significant role in the lead-up to the founding of the NAACP.
Can’t argue with the importance of any of those efforts, but to my mind—and I am familially biased, but in terms of how many Americans and people around the world were affected I think I’ve got a good case—none of them were as significant as his arguments and philosophies and activisms on behalf of democratic, experiential, and fundamentally child-centered education. In works like the two seminal ones linked below, The Child and the Curriculum (1902) and Democracy and Education  (1916), as well as in numerous others and, perhaps even importantly, in on-the-ground efforts with schools and teachers throughout his career, Dewey helped revolutionize (along with other figures worldwide, such as Friedrich Frobel in Germany, Maria Montessori in Italy, and Paolo Freire in Brazil) many of the most basic concepts of education; virtually everything we now associate with a preschool classroom (and many other kinds of classes as well), from the use of movement and experiential practices to an emphasis on each child’s identity and needs and on learning as a partnership between teacher and students) was strongly influenced by Dewey’s ideas and works. Perhaps even more basically, in an era where universal public education was still a new idea and where many continued to argue that education was not at all necessary for every individual, Dewey argued with great force for the exact opposite position: Chapter One of Democracy and Education is entitled “Education as a Necessity of Life,” and for Dewey no individual or community (and certainly no nation) could ever succeed with a consistent and meaningful educational presence.
Does that mean that we should raise taxes a few percentage points on the wealthiest American families and pay for universal preschool for all our kids? Well, yeah. But Dewey’s contributions to our national perspectives on education—and on a great many other topics—go way beyond any individual political issue or debate. At a time when prioritizing education, and perhaps especially early childhood education, remains a troublingly contested position, Dewey’s work reminds us of just how essential, beneficial, and fun the best and broadest educations can be. More tomorrow, on the laughably inaccurate xenophobic predictions of one of our smartest and most talented national heroes.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Full text of The Child and the Curriculum: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29259/29259-h/29259-h.htm
2)      Full text of Democracy and Education: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26, 2010: A Hard Story is Good to Find

I love short stories (not trolling for post-Christmas presents, honest, but a great short story anthology is most definitely one of life’s true pleasures). There’s a particular art to constructing a perfect short story, and many of those that fall into that category (as judged not only by my own standards but by those that are most anthologized or republished in various ways) prominently include among their charms an ironic or twist-y or at least seriously striking ending, one that leaves us surprised but that also feels, when we think about it, like the only way the story could have ended. O. Henry is the undisputed master of that terrain, but again plenty of the best-known and most-collected short stories, especially those high school standards like “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Necklace,” and “The Lady or the Tiger” (all fun and engaging reads for sure) follow a similar pattern. And the trend crosses genres—I taught a number of science fiction and fantasy short stories from two best-of anthologies this past semester and was struck by how many (such as most of the stories that comprise Ray Bradbury’s great collection The Martian Chronicles) likewise included a jaw-dropping ending.
Almost guaranteed a spot on virtually any top-ten list of such stories—at least judging by my own experiences with it as both a student and a teacher—would have to be Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953). O’Connor’s story has plenty more going for it than just the ending—it’s a funny and biting portrait of a multi-generational American family as they embark on that most stereotypical and potentially treacherous of quests, the family vacation. It manages to make us feel superior and yet entirely similar to both the family as a whole and especially the grandmother and the father (her son) whose conflicts drive the story’s plot and bring them and us inexorably to its tragicomic and even horrifying final act. And that final act—and especially the final exchange of dialogue between the grandmother and the family’s unexpected nemesis, the criminal known only as The Misfit; lines which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling—is pitch-perfect for sure. If this is the only O’Connor that most folks are likely to read, it’s certainly not a bad choice.
But the twist-ending type is only one kind of perfect short story, and I would argue that in some ways it’s more potentially gimmicky than the other, which I would call the thoughtful and open-ended type; in these perfect stories, it feels as if we could keep reading and inhabiting the world well past the ending, and in fact we often find ourselves doing so. “Good Man” has a bit of that operating underneath the surface, especially in its portrayal of The Misfit’s perspective on himself, crime, and society’s influences. And another of O’Connor’s very best stories, “The Lame Shall Enter First” (1962) is a similarly pitch-perfect example of this type. This story of a father whose social and charitable efforts with needy children, undertaken after his wife’s untimely death, have sorely distracted him from his own son’s life and needs, is not without a striking and powerful ending by any means; but far from wrapping the story up in a bow, as the twist endings often do, this one feels as complex and messy and dynamic and evolving as the story’s relationships and characters, among whom we feel we could happily (well, productively) spend a good bit more time. And just as the outside narrator of “Good Man” moves across that story’s perspectives to build its multi-character portrait, the first-person narration by the father in “Lame” both highlights the limits of his perspective and yet allows us to sympathize deeply with what has created and influenced that perspective.
The open-ended story asks something different, and perhaps something more active, of us as readers than the twist-ending one—not just to be impressed by the skills of the author in whose hands we’ve put ourselves (a feeling with which I have concluded many great short stories of both types), but to examine, for ourselves and in our own experiences and lives, the questions with which the story has grappled; questions that have not only not been resolved by the story’s end but that feel in many ways as if they’ve just been posed to us. A story that does that perfectly is, in my experience, very good to find indeed. More tomorrow, on the philosopher of education and identity whose influences go way beyond the catalog.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Full text of “Good Man”: http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~surette/goodman.html

Saturday, December 25, 2010

December 25, 2010: The Season for Misgivings

Rudolph isn’t like the other reindeer, but that shouldn’t make him an outcast or a pariah. That’s a pretty positive and important message, and I’d be very happy if my boys’ favorite holiday tune were subtly teaching them that lesson every time they warbled through its lyrics. And I suppose it is, kinda sorta. But the problem for me—and when it comes to music I am, perhaps not surprisingly, obsessively analytical about lyrics; this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the post I am going to write—is that, while Rudolph’s status in his community does change when his peers’ perspectives on his identity and distinctiveness are likewise transformed, that transformation is itself caused by a very specific and troubling factor: the recognition of Rudolph’s usefulness to said community. It’s a foggy night, Santa needs some extra guidance, and then how the reindeer loved him, then they shouted out with glee that he’d go down in history. The end result is, again, a more inclusive and tolerant North Pole community, and I’m all for that, but I sure do wish it could get that way because of the inherent goodness of those values, and not because Rudolph happened to prove his practical worth.
The dual communities constructed in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” on the other hand, are flawed precisely because of the extreme imbalance in their respective contributions to the happy occasion (caroling, wassailing, whatever term you prefer) upon which they meet. The song’s speakers admit, in the opening verse, that what they bring to this occasion amounts to nothing more than “good tidings … to you and your kin, / good tidings for Christmas and a happy New Year.” It’s always nice to be wished well, of course, and I’m sure that I can speak for my kin in returning the good tidings. But the speakers will not be satisfied with such an exchange, demanding in the second verse—repeating the demand three consecutive times, no less—that we “bring [them] a figgy pudding,” and even adding “a cup of good cheer” to the demands in the third repetition. And lest we mistake this demand for a simple request, the speakers then threaten us with the consequences of refusal, noting (again three times for emphasis) that they “won’t go until [they] get some,” and so we had better “bring some out here.” I’m all for giving, as yesterday’s post hopefully made clear, but this is coercion at its worst, and all because of some good tidings that, I am forced to imagine, are likewise contingent on me and my kin giving in to these culinary demands.
Speaking of those kin, and coming back around to my boys, I’m a big fan of any and all mechanisms through which I can help—okay, fine, coerce, but with good intentions—them to behave well, and Santa Claus has proven to be one of the most successful such disciplinary devices. To that end, I think that the bulk of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” expresses with admirable clarity and conciseness the need for children to watch out, not to cry or pout, and generally to be good (not, it must be admitted, actually for goodness’ sake, but for the sake of self-interest and future present-receiving, which is a more compelling argument to be sure) if they hope to stay on the nice list and have a merry Christmas morning. But then there’s the start of the final verse: “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Why? Why, in the name of all that is ho ho ho-ly, does Santa need to see and know those things? Why has he suddenly transformed here into an “Every Breath You Take”-like stalker, attending to my children’s every move, 24 hours a day? And how am I supposed to sleep on Christmas Eve now, knowing that this Big Brother wannabe with his ominously shaking belly will be descending down my chimney at any moment?
And don’t even get me started on Frosty. In any case, I hope you and yours can get past these complex and confusing cultural messages and enjoy a very restful and peaceful holiday season. Back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, on one of our most unique and compelling fictional voices and two stories that cut to the heart of her balance of pessimism and optimism about our fallen human natures.
Ben
PS. I can’t imagine that I really need to link to those songs, especially not after you’ve been hearing them in every store for the last, what, two months? 

Friday, December 24, 2010

December 24, 2010: A Human and Yet Holy Day

At the height of the mid-19th century debates over slavery in the United States, some of the most vocal partisans on both sides (and just to be very clear, I’m not trying by any means to equate the two sides in a “fair and balanced” sort of way, simply to highlight a shared rhetorical device) appealed directly to Christianity, and even more directly to particular passages in the Bible, in order to make their case. William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, three of the most prominent and central voices in the abolitionist movement, all credited Presbyterian minister John Rankin and his Scriptural opposition to slavery with greatly influencing their views on and work for that cause. On the other side, Richard Furman, the President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, argued that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”; future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis went even further, thundering that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God,” and “is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” There’s plenty that can be said about the issue of religion and slavery in America, but my point here is a more simple one: the Bible can be, and most definitely has been, used to justify any social or political position, even the most diametrically opposed ones.
On virtually every relevant issue, then, the question of What Would Jesus Do? is generally short-hand for What Would I Like Some Irrefutable Backing For In Order to Feel Better About Doing Myself (not an acronym that would work as well on bumper stickers, of course)? But if there’s one social issue for which the use of Jesus’s and Christian philosophies would seem, to my mind, most appropriate and as close to genuinely irrefutable as we’re likely to get, it’s poverty. As cited in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus answered a question from his disciples about how to achieve perfection by replying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor [“give alms” is the King James translation, but same difference], and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Leaving aside whether such actions are truly possible—or the even more complex question of what would then happen to those who have sold all they have, given to the poor, and thus become impoverished themselves—the larger message of this advice, as of a great many of Christ’s pronouncements, is that an individual’s and a community’s spirituality and perfection are directly connected to, even dependent on, their willingness to take care of the least fortunate among them. And by that measure, no American life and legacy are more truly Christian than those of Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
Day was by her teens in the 1910s and remained for most of her life thereafter a self-proclaimed and proud socialist and Christian anarchist, and so by her final decades, with the Cold War having pushed socialism and Christianity into explicitly opposed boxes, she was a hugely controversial and divisive figure. Her own (Christ-like, one might say) willingness to admit her weaknesses and shortcomings and mistakes, as when she wrote of her common-law marriage and abortion in the autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924) or her spiritual struggles and doubts in the more overtly autobiographical The Long Loneliness (1952), no doubt contributed as well to those mixed responses. But Day’s most significant work and legacy, her 1933 founding (along with fellow activist Peter Maurin) of and lifelong commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, represents one of our nation’s most impressive and influential (in her own life and down to the our present moment) efforts on behalf of the most impoverished and marginalized Americans, and as such we cannot allow it to be overshadowed by those mixed responses. “Our rule,” Day wrote of the movement, “is the works of mercy,” and no figure or movement have better emblematized Shakespeare’s evocative idea (from The Merchant of Venice) that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It is no coincidence that the movement was founded at the height of the Depression and began its efforts with a no-questions-asked soup kitchen in New York City—like Day herself, the movement has always taken the fight on poverty and hunger and injustice of all kinds into the heart of our most embattled communities, leaving the debates over theology or politics to be hashed out by those less busy helping their fellow Americans.
Religious faith is a profoundly personal matter, making it one of the American Studies topics into which I tread most hesitantly. But as with any of the central elements of individual and communal identity, it has also been a hugely influential social factor throughout our history, making it impossible to analyze American lives and texts and culture without including it in our purview. And whatever we say about Day’s personal faith (and she had plenty to say herself about it, which would be the place to start), I feel very confident in saying that her social contributions to American life embody the best of what Christianity can be and mean here. More tomorrow, a much less weighty holiday post on the troubling messages in some of our most popular Christmas tunes.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The Catholic Worker movement’s website: http://www.catholicworker.org/
2)      A great article on Day’s life and beliefs and legacy, from one of her biographers and friends: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=4487

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010: The Pen and the Sword

For obvious reasons, folks in my profession are big fans of the cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. Or, more exactly, of the reading of that phrase in which the pen and the sword are opposed, and thus the narrative in which words and writing can, in one way or another, triumph over or at least outlast weapons and war. None of us are naïve enough to think that the pen can win in a direct confrontation, but in this reading of the phrase, the words and writing are the slower but steadier and ultimately stronger influences, the ones that can revise and reshape and remake histories and stories (even those of war at its worst). I don’t disagree with that perspective—I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t put that kind of faith in the power of words—but there’s another possible reading of the phrase, one that is much less attractive for us fans of the pen: in this reading, the pen and the sword are both trying to achieve the same objectives, are both weapons of war, and the phrase simply suggests that the pen is ultimately a more powerful such weapon.
One of the best and most troubling proofs for that reading comes from the late 1890s and the build-up to the Spanish-American War. I’ve already written in this space and likely will again about the US’s imperialistic endeavors that partly coincided with and definitely expanded as a result of this war, especially the bloody and tragic mess in the Philippines, but the war itself likewise was, if not particularly bloody (from an American perspective, anyway), almost certainly tragically unnecessary. Although the war represented in many ways the culmination of decades-long trends on multiple levels—from Cuba’s efforts for independence from Spain to those aforementioned growing American imperialistic goals—its most proximate cause was the February 1898 sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, a warship that had been sent to Havana to monitor ongoing social unrest there. At the time, the narratives of that incident, as advanced for example in the hugely popular newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (both vocal advocates of imperialistic expansion and thus of war with Spain), emphasized the strong likelihood that the ship’s powder magazines had exploded due to an external attack (from the Spanish forces, was the constant implication), and the subsequent “Remember the Maine” battle-cry greatly pushed public opinion in support of the war. (Later investigations, which will never be much more than speculative, have made clear that the explosion could have been internally triggered, and at least that there was no specific evidence for any particular cause.)
The pens of Hearst and Pulitzer and their employees thus certainly helped make the war palatable and so perhaps possible. The most troubling such pen was that of a man who had long since used it to make an iron-clad reputation as one of the most talented and nuanced artists and illustrators of his era: Frederic Remington. Remington had been producing his drawings and paintings of the West and the frontier for almost fifteen years by this time; those works did partly contribute to the origins and extensions of a Wild West mythos, but in his renderings of Native American subjects (for example) Remington displayed a cultural awareness and sensitivity that far exceeded many of his Wild West mythmaking peers (such as Buffalo Bill). But in early 1897 Remington was sent to Cuba by his friend and sometime employer Hearst to witness and capture Spanish abuses and atrocities there; Hearst’s famous instruction to him, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” may well be apocryphal (as per the article linked below), but there’s no question that Remington’s assignment was to illustrate the sensationalist coverage of the situation and help push the US closer to war, and Remington did not leave Cuba until he had what he believed was sufficient material to illustrate those stories. That he would, a year later, cover Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during their over-glorified charge up San Juan Hill in Puerto Rico, the event that cemented both the narratives of the US’s war effort and Roosevelt’s national reputation, only highlights how much Remington’s pen became in these years a direct corollary to the sword.
The Spanish-American War might well have happened even if Remington—or any of these journalists—had never raised a pen; history is rarely if ever reducible to single influences or causes. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of public opinion when it comes to the US’s war policies in this era—it was less than two decades later, after all, that Woodrow Wilson would win reelection on the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” And while the war’s influences and trajectory will, like what happened to the Maine, remain open to historical interpretation and analysis, there is no disputing that in this case, many of our most prominent pens were drafted into combat. More tomorrow, on one of the most genuinely Christian American lives (the first of two Christmas-related posts).
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The story on the famous Remington-Hearst exchange, which also includes lots of other relevant contexts: http://academic2.american.edu/~wjc/wjc3/notlikely.htm

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22, 2010: A Snowball’s Chance

When you think about it, snow and the American Dream have a lot in common. (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about race. Not this time, anyway.) Both are full of possibility, of a sense of childlike wonder and innocence, conjuring up nostalgic connections to our families and our childhoods as well as ideals of play and community and warmth (paradoxical for snow I know but definitely true for me—snow always makes me think of hot chocolate and fires in the fireplace). Yet as we get to be adults, both also suggest much more realistic and limiting and even threatening details, of dangerous conditions and losses of power and the cold that can set in if we can’t afford to heat our home. And once we have kids of our own, the coexistence of those two levels is particularly striking—seeing their own excitement and innocence and thorough focus on the possibilities, and certainly sharing them, but also worrying that much more about whether we can get them through the drifts, drive them safely where they need to go, keep them warm.
 I might be stretching the connection to its breaking point, but the link might help explain why so many films that explore the promises and pitfalls of the American Dream seem to do so amidst a snow-covered landscape. Near the top of that list for me are two character-driven thrillers from the late 1990s: Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998). Both are based on novels—the former a work of literary fiction by the great Russell Banks, the latter a page-turning thriller by Scott Smith—but both, to my mind, are among those rare examples of films that significantly improve upon the source material; partly they do so through amazing screenplays (Smith interestingly wrote the screenplay based on his own book, and I would argue changed it for the better in every way), but mostly through inspired and pitch-perfect casting: Affliction centers on a career-best performance from Nick Nolte, but his work is definitely equaled by James Coburn (in an Academy-Award winning turn), Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, and Willem Dafoe; while Simple is truly an ensemble piece, with Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton both doing unbelievable work but great contributions as well from Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross, and Gary Cole. And in both, again, the snowy setting—small-town New Hampshire in Affliction, small-town North Dakota in Simple, but they might as well be next door—is a central presence and character in its own right.
The multiple, interconnecting plot threads of both films are complex, rich, and intentionally suspenseful and mysterious, and I’m most definitely not going to spoil them here. But I will say that both are, at heart, stories of the dreams and weaknesses, the ideals and failures, that we inherit from our parents, and how as adults (and especially perhaps as adults struggling with the responsibilities of family and parenthood) we try to live up to and beyond the dreams and ideals but are pulled back by and ultimately risk becoming ourselves the weaknesses and failures. It is perhaps not much of a spoiler either (just look at the titles!) to note that both films, while offering their characters and audiences glimpses of possibility and hope, bring them and us to extremely bleak final images, worlds where the snow storms may have passed but where the silence and lifelessness they have left behind are all we can see and all we can imagine. And both do so, most powerfully, by bringing their protagonists back to their childhood homes, sites (in these cases) at one and the same time of those most innocent ideals and of some of the strongest influences in turning those ideals into something much darker and colder.
When it comes to wintry or especially holiday fare, these two definitely aren’t It’s a Wonderful Life, which certainly connects it own bleak middle section very fully to a world of snow and storm but which of course ends with its protagonist in the warmest and most hopeful possible place (and in a home that has become again the source of such ideals). But either could make a pretty evocative snow day double feature with that equally great film of the American Dream and its limits. More tomorrow, on the artist and illustrator who helped launch one of our most unnecessary wars.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Quick but representative and evocative scene from Affliction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5yu5DCmsF4
2)      Great interview clips with Thornton about Simple, including his takes on a lot of these questions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjmyCGvMrtI

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21, 2010: What It’s Like

If I had to identify one factor that can almost instantly change our perspectives (individually and communally) on any issue or story—no matter how entrenched our existing beliefs might seem to be—I’d have to go with empathy. Not just sympathy, ‘cause while that’s nice it’s still somewhat distant, regarding what’s happening to someone else and feeling badly about it. But the moment when we can empathize with them, the second we start imagining ourselves in that identity and situation and set of experiences, that to me is the lever that can force some daylight between our biases and the genuine and complex details of what these others are dealing with, making it possible, at least potentially, for us to see and understand the latter without being blinded by the former. That’s why, whatever else he did or does with his career, I’ll always be very grateful to Everlast for his song “What It’s Like,” which articulates the necessity of and stakes in such empathetic connections, even to some of the most controversial figures among us (an alcoholic homeless man, a girl getting an abortion, and a gangbanger), with perfect clarity and power (it also includes, in its bridge, one of the truest lines in American music: “You know where it ends, yo it usually depends on where you start”).
One of the most striking requests for an audience’s empathy in all of American literature comes in the opening sentence of Rebecca Harding Davis’s novella Life in the Iron-Mills (1861). The twenty-nine year old Davis was working as a reporter and occasional editor for her local newspaper, the Wheeling (WV) Intelligencer when Life appeared in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, and had published no works in any genre on a national level (her first novel, Margret Howth, would appear later in the year); so this incredibly dense and evocative work would have likely caught readers by surprise in any case. But the direct inclusion of those readers in that first sentence—“A cloudy day; do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?”—, and moreover the central role played by “you” in almost every sentence of the story’s first four paragraphs, represents a even more thoroughly surprising and immediately engaging element. And Davis asks her audience to do a great deal more than just envision a cloudy day; in the fourth paragraph’s culmination of this introductory section, she requests your empathy much more overtly and brazenly: “Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries; I want to make it a real thing to you.”
As the somewhat melodramatic language and tone there might suggest, the story that Davis proceeds to tell for us is certainly not without its sentimental and gothic extremes: from its heroine, a hunchbacked worker named Deborah who suffers from a lifelong unrequited love for the story’s hero, Hugh Wolfe; to Wolfe’s own conflicted identity as an iron worker who produces tragically beautiful works of art in his spare time and with spare materials; to the at times heavy-handed use of symbols, including a caged and soot-covered bird in the opening and the angel sculpture that represents both Wolfe’s masterpiece and, in the story’s main plot thread, his undoing and destruction. Yet of course one could argue quite successfully that such emotional and symbolic extremes represent purposeful choices on Davis’s part to help bring us in, to engage with her audience’s own emotions and ideas—and thus, paradoxically but crucially, that in these melodramatic elements, just as much as in the striking second-person opening, she is in fact working precisely to “make it a real thing” for us. And that argument could be made successfully because she most certainly succeeds in that goal: I’ve never been anywhere near a town of iron-works, and when I first read this story as a freshman in college had never even seen photographs of them, yet Davis’s text captures every sensory detail, every corner, of that setting and world with clarity and power; so much so that when we come back to the narrator’s voice and room in the final paragraphs, the circular structure reminds us of the first sentence’s question, and our answer now, wherever and whoever we may be, is “Yes.”
As with anything, even the best of things, empathy has its limits, and that’s not at all a bad thing; not every identity is healthy for us to imagine ourselves into, and I certainly have no desire to empathize with (for example) a Jeffrey Dahmer. But when it comes to defining experiences and places and issues in American history, especially those that are far removed from most of our 21st-century lives—and the world of industrial labor in the 19th century, before such things as the weekend or work hours or child labor laws or safety regulations were even matters for debate, is most definitely one of them—there are few things that can be more productive and important than imagining ourselves into them. And that’s a lot easier with a guide like Davis. More tomorrow, on two wintry cinematic tales of the dark undersides of the American Dream.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The full text of Life: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/876/876-h/876-h.htm
2)       Some photos and lots of good information on a representative Civil War-era iron works: http://www.usa-civil-war.com/Tredegar/tredegar.html

Sunday, December 19, 2010

December 19, 2010: What the Head Makes Cloudy

One of the most difficult but crucial aspects of being a sensitive student of American history is, I believe, doing justice to the kinds of complexities that defy not only easy answers but also (a lot of the time) our own political or social leanings. Perhaps the most compelling example of that need, at least for my own biases, would be the Rosenberg case and execution in the 1950s. For a long time I was entirely convinced that the Rosenbergs were simply two of the most high-profile and extreme victims of McCarthyism, and that the executions of these two average Americans represented one of the very lowest points in that era of paranoia and fear and divisiveness. But while I haven’t changed my perspective on the era or on McCarthyism, the recent release of previously secret documents has seemed to confirm that at least Julius Rosenberg did, indeed, try to sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets; they were relatively minor and perhaps even useless secrets, and it seems probable that Ethel knew very little and was not actively involved in any way, and thus that her execution was indeed unnecessary and deeply disturbing. But nonetheless, Julius Rosenberg’s conviction of and execution for treason was almost certainly not the McCarthyist railroading that I had believed it to be; and holding that knowledge alongside my unwavering critique of all things McCarthy is precisely the kind of historical complexity about which I’m thinking.
You wouldn’t think that a popular dramatic TV show would be the best place to find justice being done to such complex national and historical issues, but in fact that was one of the central and continual goals of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (at least over its first few seasons; I haven’t seen the final few, and I know that Sorkin had moved on from most of his involvement with the show by then, so it’s particularly seasons 1-3 or so that I have in mind here). Certainly the primary focus of each episode was on the combination of contemporary politics and the many personalities and perspectives of the characters advising Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett, and there were always plenty of secondary plotlines offering romance and relationships, comic relief, and, of course, rapid-fire and pitch-perfect dialogue. But in many of the episodes, and almost all of the best ones, at least one of the central threads would connect back to precisely such complex and defining national and historical issues; those threads, quite appropriately, usually offered no clear-cut answers or black-and-white perspectives, but instead tried both to highlight the complexities themselves and to make clear how much our own identity and perspective informs where we come down on them.
One such episode is Season 2’s “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” in particular a main plot thread in which Rob Lowe’s Sam is asked by a childhood friend of Donna’s (a co-worker) to make a case to the President that he should pardon the friend’s late grandfather, who had been convicted of spying for the Soviets many decades before. Sam has long believed in the man’s innocence and happily takes on the case, only to learn, when the National Security director gives me brief but convincing access to the relevant secret files, that he was in fact guilty of the charges against him. This stunning revelation for Sam parallels one with which the episode had opened, when he learned that his father had been consistently unfaithful to his mother and that they will be separating after many decades of marriage. When Donna begs Sam to just keep the granddaughter (and her father, who is dying) unaware of her grandfather’s guilt without promising anything about the pardon, Sam initially responds angrily that he will do no such thing, launches into an eloquent rant about high treason, and concludes that “she’s going to learn who her father really was!” He of course means the woman’s grandfather, and in this single moment of dialogue we can see how much these two revelations have come together to shake many of the core beliefs—both personal and political—that have defined Sam to this point. He certainly will be significantly changed by those revelations—as the episode’s title, an allusion to the Eagles’ “New York Minute,” makes clear—but in the final minutes, with that song beginning to play in the background , he demonstrates that he will work to include them in his new identity and perspective: first telling the granddaughter the white lie that Donna had requested, allowing her to go call her father; and then, as the episode ends, calling his own father.
One of the best lines in “New York Minute” (it’s got a number of good ones) is “What the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear.” But while I would generally agree with that sentiment when it comes to romantic relationships (on which the song focuses), I’d say it’s a lot more complicated than that when it comes to American history and identity. There, I think the cloudiness that comes from significant understanding is entirely appropriate, and that in fact only by recognizing and trying to engage with those clouds can we get to a clearer vision of who we are, who we have been, and who, at heart, we can be. More tomorrow, on the defining and all too unknown duality at the heart of one of the best-known Americans.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The episode’s final couple minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKnoSMGQNGU
2)      A New York Times story from the period in 2008 when the new Rosenberg details were being released: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/12/nyregion/12spy.html?_r=1

Saturday, December 18, 2010

December 18, 2010: Mixology

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that for most Americans, the Caribbean means, primarily or perhaps even solely, cruises and beach vacations and daiquiris with little umbrellas in them and making sure not to drink the water and etc. There’s also that whole unfortunateness about the Communist country with the (apparently) great cigars that we can’t legally smoke and the bearded dictator and the near-Nuclear War back in the day, but since Cuba isn’t an option for those cruises and beach vacations, I think it’s pretty distinct from the public consciousness of “the Caribbean” in any case. Yet the complex reality is that the Caribbean, or more exactly the many different distinct islands and nations it comprises, has been a hugely significant influence on American life (and vice versa) from literally the first 15th-century moments of European arrival (which took place on Hispaniola, present home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first came ashore). There are, for example, the complex ways in which the Haitian Revolution followed the American one, scared the hell out of Southern slaveowners, and contributed to France selling the Louisiana Purchase to the US. Or there’s everything that Puerto Rico and Cuba meant to America’s imperialistic visions and wars at the end of the 19th century. Or our somewhat unofficial but very real and troubling relationships with dictators like the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo in the mid-20th century. And the list goes on.
It stands to reason, then, that one of the scholars and writers who can provide the most insight into our national identity and experience—but whose voice and ideas, like the historical meanings of the Caribbean itself, are vastly underappreciated or even unknown in America (at least outside of the academy, and I would argue even inside it to a degree)—hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique. That writer is Edouard Glissant, a hugely unique and impressive literary and cultural scholar and creative writer whose life has very directly included links not only to his Caribbean home but also to France (where for example he was asked by President Chirac in 2006 to serve as the inaugural president of a cultural centre focused on the history of the slave trade) and to America (where for example he has served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York for the last couple of decades). Glissant has published eight novels, at least as many books of poetry, and critical and theoretical works in a variety of disciplines, and has also worked actively on behalf of counter-culture political and activist movements in both France and Martinique. He has been short-listed for the Nobel Prize (in the same year that St. Lucian Derek Walcott won it—guess that was the year for Caribbean writers to be nominated) and is still, at over 80 years old, producing meaningful and compelling work in all his many genres.
But for an American audience, and more specifically for our understanding of our own history and identity, I think Glissant can be boiled down to one crucial text: his recent essay “Creolization in the Making of the Americas” (full text, or at least the opening for sure, at the link below). Finding this piece was one of the most significant moments for me in the research for my second book, a clear and striking affirmation that my main idea is in conversation with some of those scholars who have thought and are thinking about what defines the New World. But even if you never read my book—for shame!—you have to check out Glissant’s essay, which lays out succinctly and beautifully one of his most central ongoing arguments: that from their very origins (at least in the post-contact era), the Americas have been defined by cultural mixture, and even more importantly by the new and hybrid results of such mixtures. As Glissant puts it early in that essay, “When we speak about creolization, we do not only mean metissage: crossbreeding, because creolization adds something new to the components that participate in it.” And that’s the most crucial part of his ideas (and a big part of what I see as the stakes of defining our history and identity in this way, as both he and I would): that such creolizations are foundational and transformative for all who participate in them, making Americans, from the outset, unified across any cultural or ethnic or racial boundaries by this shared set of experiences.
It’s hard to overstate how radical such ideas were in the 1970s and 80s when Glissant was first beginning to fully articulate them. That was the era of identity politics and the rise of multiculturalism and ethnic studies departments, an era when celebrating diversity—meaning recognizing and embracing many distinct identities and histories and cultures—was becoming a national emphasis. Glissant didn’t dismiss such emphases or their political and cultural value, but he did argue, with force and conviction and precision and great power, that the diversity of the Americas has not only always been present but also has produced continual and crucial interconnections and new identities. Maybe not beach reading, but damn important stuff. More tomorrow, on one of the most compelling and complex episodes of one of our best TV shows.
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Great short interview with Glissant on the theme of creolization (among other things): http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/article_imprim.php3?id_article=6589
2)      The full text (I think, but at least one full page is here and free) of “Creolization in the Making of the Americas”: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7495/is_200803/ai_n32280290/