MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 2011: No Fooling

Which is to say two things:

1) Tomorrow's post will not be an April Fool's gag, but instead the long-awaited, or at least long-promised, post on Eleanor Roosevelt. (Okay, spoiled the suspense, but she's still well worth reading about.)

2) I was going to try to write it tonight, but this is pretty much my limit for coherent sentences at the moment. That was probably going to be the case no matter what, but seeing the heavy snow falling out the window has rendered me even more incoherent.

So rather than try to fool you with incoherence, I'll see you tomorrow, when the snow will still be here but so will Eleanor, no fooling.

Ben

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30, 2011: The Worst of Times, The Best of Times

I’m going to have to push my scheduled programming back yet again, as a couple of developments have me continuing to think in more self-reflective ways about what I’m doing, here and in general. I read today a New York Times article (linked below) that documents how what has been done to Professor Cronon (on which see my brief March 24th post) is just the tip of the iceberg; Republican groups in Michigan are now making sweeping public records requests involving the emails of numerous labor studies professors at three (so far) public universities in the state. I’ve long felt that the various kinds of anti-intellectual and anti-academic hostilities present in our national narratives are by far the worst—and perhaps even the only bad—aspect of this profession, and I can honestly say that in my fifteen or so years of genuine awareness of the profession (although I was certainly aware to at least a degree through my Dad for years before that as well) this is certainly the worst that things have gotten. I would, I hope, feel that way even if I were not myself employed by a public university; but the fact that I am only amplifies my sense of the profoundly un-American qualities of these invasions of privacy and attacks.
It’s true that many academics, at least in the humanities, are politically liberal; there are plenty of possible reasons for that preponderance, and while I have my own theories they’re not the point here. It’s also absolutely and profoundly true, in my significant experiences across multiple institutions and disciplines and classrooms, that the vast majority of academics, whatever their personal views on politics (or anything else), do not bring those views into the classroom; moreover, of the small minority who do make such views clear at times, I am even more certain that virtually (if not literally) none of them require of their students that they adhere to such views in order to receive high grades or the like. And above and beyond such specifics, it seems to me that what college classes most fully offer is the opportunity for students to learn how to think and analyze and argue and read and write and be a part of their world in stronger and more successful ways, skills that prepare them for not only any political conversation (from any perspective) but every other arena of life and identity. To attack college professors for (the only possible charge behind these kinds of document requests) indoctrinating their students or the like is thus, to my mind, not only false on the specifics but even more false, directly backwards even, on the broader work that we do and ask of our students.
I came home today, disheartened by having read that article, to find the advance copies of my new book waiting for me. The book is, like this blog, certainly not a-political; its concluding chapter analyzes Barack Obama’s first book and his identity more broadly as profoundly representative of all early 21st century Americans’ identities and relationships to our shared national heritage. But my sincere and most ideal hope for the book, as for this blog, is that it contributes to our communal understandings and conversations and knowledge and narratives in ways that transcend any particular partisan or contemporary debates, that in fact remind us of how much we share and how much stronger and better we are as a nation when our focus is there. Holding in my hands the book, the result of at least five years of thinking and writing, and of innumerable conversations in classrooms, in colloquiums and conferences, in faculty reading groups, with family and friends, and, yes, online, is one of the very best times that this profession has to offer. But even better, I have to admit, is allowing myself to contemplate those ideal contributions it and I could make to our national conversations and narratives.
I don’t imagine that the worst of times vibe is going to go away any time soon. But when I’m posting here, as when I hold the book, as when I step into my classes, I can remember some of the best of times, within my profession and within our nation. And I have to believe that they’re stronger and more lasting than even the very worst of where we can go as a nation. More tomorrow, on, I’m pretty sure, another nominee for the Hall of Inspiration.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011: Why We’re Here, Still

Back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, but today I read two stories that feel too relevant to what I’m trying to do here—as well as my ideal goals for my forthcoming book, the advance copies of which are supposed to arrive at our door any day—not to engage with them. The first is a somewhat old story and one in response to which (so to speak) I’ve already written, but one that bears repeating nonetheless: Dan Severson, a candidate for Minnesota Secretary of State in this past November’s election (I can’t bring myself to find out whether he won, although I fear the worst), said in October that “There is no such thing” as the separation of church and state, that “it just does not exist, and it does not exist in America for a purpose, because we are a Christian nation.” I can’t say that Mr. Severson needs to read my earlier post on the Treaty of Tripoli, because I have a feeling he’s a lost cause; but certainly the need to counter a position like his with historical details about (for example) that Treaty, to add some AmericanStudies knowledge to the conversations in contrast to that kind of rank fiction or ignorance, makes a compelling argument that a blog like this has a role to play in our contemporary conversations.
Even more meaningful than his nonsense about the separation of church and state, however, is Severson’s final and more sweeping assertion that “we are a Christian nation.” I argue explicitly in the conclusion to that forthcoming book that what was at stake in the 2008 election, and what remains most significantly at stake in (for example) debates over President Obama’s American-ness, is a set of debates over America’s core, founding, fundamental identity; more specifically and centrally, in relation to Severson’s quote, I believe that the great majority of positions held by the contemporary right can be boiled down to corollaries of such a belief about America’s Christian (and Anglo, English-speaking, etc) origins. And along those lines, I read today that former Speaker of the House, current pundit, and future presidential candidate Newt Gingrich argued in a speech delivered at an evangelical Texas mega-church that “I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9, [and] I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
The responses to Gingrich’s quote that I’ve read have understandably focused on the tortured logic by which a secular atheist country could be dominated by radical Islamists. But to my mind, the more significant argumentative ideas here are the last and the first—Gingrich’s explicitly Christian vision of “what it once meant to be an American,” and his desire to pass down that fictitious heritage to a future generation of young Americans. On the latter general idea Newt and I agree—there’s a reason why I put the picture of my boys at the top of this blog, and a reason why the cover of my book features a photograph of young American schoolchildren (of a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds); the stakes of these debates over what we are and have always been are most definitely tied to the future, and especially to what future Americans recognize as our shared and communal and core identities. And I would add the vitally important idea, also at the heart of my book, that America has always been defined not only by multiple cultures and peoples and languages and religions—the emphasis of the multicultural historical narrative which often counters the Christian one, and with which I agree in many ways but which still defines cultures as individual and static and at least somewhat separate—but also by the cross-cultural intersections and combinations and hybrid transformations of that community.
What’s the difference between those two narratives, the multicultural one and my cross-cultural idea? I would answer that by pointing to one more recent story, the census results in which Hispanic Americans constitute roughly a sixth of the nation’s population. In the Christian narrative, this is a dire trend, a sign that things are indeed changing and for the worse; in the multicultural narrative, it would I believe likewise be seen as a change, just a much more positive one (toward increasing diversity, for example). Yet in my cross-cultural vision of America, one that includes Spanish American arrivals and settlers (in Florida, in Texas, in the Southwest and California) as first and founding Americans alongside, in fact in cross-cultural mixture with, the Puritans in Massachusetts and the French in the upper Midwest and the Catholics in Maryland and the Dutch in New Amsterdam and African slaves in Virginia and Native Americans everywhere and many others besides, those census results merely highlight how much 21st century America stands, like our President, as a descendent of what we have always been, of what has always defined our most unique and significant community and identity. More tomorrow, on that inspiring American woman.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A story on the Gingrich speech: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/52023.html
3)      OPEN: Thoughts?

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011: Case by Case

Most of the time I’m very happy with and comfortable in my dual academic allegiances, my membership in the tribes of English and AmericanStudies. But there are times when the two worlds seem to bump up against each other a bit more roughly, and many of them can be traced pretty directly to distinct visions of how we can best analyze works of literature. From an AmericanStudies perspective, at least as it is too often deployed, literary works can help us to understand and analyze historical or social or cultural contexts; such analyses often depend on at least somewhat straightforward and even simplistic visions of the texts’ themes and meanings. But from a literary critical perspective, as least in what I’d call the best kind, literary works are rich and complex and need to be read and analyzed on their own, far from simple or singular, terms; only once such readings are well developed can a scholar then link a text to those broader contexts.
As my descriptions of them no doubt make clear, I side with the literary critical perspective on this one; a particularly good example of the need for such complex literary engagement is the late 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was a slave who had been brought from Africa to the Boston area as a young girl, and in her shortest and most famous poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she writes about that experience in such positive terms—arguing that it “was Mercy brought me from my pagan land” and introduced her to knowledge of Christianity—that to an AmericanStudies scholar, especially one familiar with both the Middle Passage and the world of slavery, it can seem as if she must be deploying sarcasm or at least irony. But Wheatley’s conversion to Christianity was entirely sincere, and every other poem of hers, as well as all the information that biographers have been able to ascertain, makes clear that she means every word of “On Being Brought.” For the simpler kind of AmericanStudies use of literary works, then, Wheatley can only represent an anomaly, perhaps an illustration of a rare, kinder version of slavery (her owners provided her with an extensive education so she could be a companion to their daughter) or of the power of religious faith to overshadow even difficult experiences such as the Middle Passage.
But what the more complex literary critical perspective can help an AmericanStudier to see is the way in which Wheatley uses her optimistic voice and eloquence to articulate other, extremely sophisticated ideas in her poems. In the second half of “On Being Brought,” for example, she builds on the first half’s conversion experience to speak as a spiritual authority, overtly entreating her white Christian audience to remember that African Americans have just as much potential for salvation and grace as they do. And in another poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley develops, to a powerful British audience member, a complex, multi-part argument on behalf of the incipient American Revolution; an argument that includes, in its penultimate stanza, an extended depiction of the effects of slavery on the parents from whom a child is stolen. “Such, such my case,” Wheatley concludes, noting that her awareness of this side of slavery is the source “from whence my love of freedom sprung.” While her vision of her own identity and experiences remains an entirely positive one, she recognizes what and who she has left behind, and constructs their perspective here in service of both the community to which she now belongs and to humanity’s universal quest for freedom.
Those are only a couple of Wheatley’s many impressive poems, and in others—such as an ode to General Washington once the Revolution has fully commenced or an address to religious scholars at England’s University of Cambridge—she focuses on other themes and constructs other, equally complex and eloquent images. And that’s really my point here—the more we take a case like Wheatley’s on its own terms, and in fact analyze her works case by case to develop a sense of her writings and perspective and identity, the more strongly and successfully we can likewise analyze her relationship to her historical, cultural, and social contexts. More tomorrow, on another very inspiring and underrated public American woman.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Full text of “On Being Brought”: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/Wheatley/brought.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 26-27, 2011: Student Teachers

Grading papers like crazy this weekend, an activity which is, as I have often said, the only part of this job that they have to pay me to complete. (Probably because of the many difficulties connected to grades, as I discussed in that earlier post.) So for this briefer, combinatory tribute and academic work post, I thought I would highlight three things about which I have learned a great deal from classes I have taught at Fitchburg State—and thus three aspects that make this a job I would mostly happily do for free:
1)      American Identities: In two of the classes I teach pretty regularly, Ethnic American Literature and Intro to American Studies, students complete a multi-generational family timeline and analytical family history as a main piece of individual work. I’ve now taught at least three sections of the former and at least five of the latter, meaning I must have read more than 200 of these family projects. And every one has been incredibly valuable—hopefully for the students, but definitely for me, teaching me a great deal about the variety and breadth and challenges and power of American family and individual experiences and identities.
2)      American Artists: Since my second-half American literature survey comes right up to the present day (our last class reading is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake [2003]), for the last two classes I ask the students to bring in and briefly share a work by an artist (in any medium and genre) who has been influential in their life and perspective. I can’t tell you the number of writers and musicians, photographers and graffiti artists, and folks in every other imaginable artistic genre to whom I’ve been introduced through these presentations; but I can tell you that I learn as much about American art in those two days as I did in whole semesters of college.
3)      America Itself: I doubt that it’s always going to be this clear-cut, but I can trace with exact certainty the development of my second book, the advance copies of which should be arriving any day. It started during an American Literature I class, as we were discussing Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative and especially the complex middle section where she begins to join the social and economic communities of her Native captors; I linked the section to Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences, narrative, and hybrid identity, and an idea was born. There were lots of stages along the way from there to here, two weeks out from the release date, and a great many of them were likewise directly situated in FSU spaces and profoundly influenced by the voices and ideas of my colleagues and students.
So I won’t complain about the grading—but I should get back to it! More tomorrow, on the diverse and even contradictory yet always very impressive works of one of our first poets.
Ben
PS. No links needed here, but any surprising and valuable lessons you want to share will be very welcome!

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 25, 2011: Reconstituting America

I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the conundrum that John Brown presents for any thoughtful AmericanStudier; Brown’s cause was just and many of his ideas on race and nation profoundly progressive and inspiring, but his actions were thoroughly violent and murderous and his perspective a terrifying combination of megalomania and religious extremism. Moreover, since Brown only rose to prominence through those murderous actions—first against pro-slavery settlers and families in Kansas and then especially in his takeover of Harper’s Ferry—it’s not really possible to separate the inspiring ideas from the actions and the perspective that drove them; Lydia Maria Child wrote in favor of racial equality and even intermarriage decades before Brown, after all, and didn’t advocate bloodshed nor believe herself to be a holy instrument and prophet.
Yet to a significant degree the duality that I’m framing in that paragraph, between being inspired by and critiquing Brown—a duality that is very difficult to avoid when it comes to a figure like him, not least because of how much contemporary figures like Timothy McVeigh seem to parallel Brown’s perspective and identity and actions—is for AmericanStudiers a bit of a red herring. That is, while we can’t necessarily avoid considering how we would judge different historical actors and actions, the more salient and productive questions are both how we would analyze them and, most AmericanStudies of all, what they can help us to understand about our national identities and narratives. There is a great deal to be made, for example, of the details and narratives presented at and surrounding Brown’s 1859 trial for the Harper’s Ferry raid; as his own statements to the court (linked below) indicate, the trial connected not only to narratives of race and slavery, but also for example to contemporary debates over insanity and the law, making the whole event a hugely complex and meaningful mid-century text.
And speaking of complicated and significant texts, Brown created one of his own roughly a year before Harper’s Ferry: what he called his “Provisional Constitution,” a new founding document (also linked below) for a United States of America reorganized around racial and other equalities. The exercise was far more than just hypothetical for Brown, as he asked members of his family and small community to swear an oath to uphold this Constitution; while certainly that request can be used as evidence for his megalomania (and his own attorney at the 1859 trial would in fact point to the Constitution as evidence of Brown’s insanity, a move with which he vocally disagreed), it also illustrates the seriousness with which he took this second founding and its potential contributions to American life and identity going forward. Again, it might be difficult to separate the document and its ideas from the actions that Brown and his community would subsequently take; but by that same logic, the US Constitution would have to be connected to (for example) the government’s brutal treatment of Native Americans, a connection that would seem tenuous at best. That is, whatever we think of Brown’s practices, we must it seems to me acknowledge the power of his political philosophies, as expressed in this strikingly unique and impressive text.
Brown’s attempt to textually and political reconstitute America failed, and of course in literal terms the nation has been reconstituted only twenty-seven times (with the twenty-seven amendments that have been added since ratification). Yet by any practical and analytical measure, the Civil War represented one of many historical moments in which the nation was greatly reconstituted, its basic identity and community fundamentally redefined and expanded. And through that lens, Brown’s relevance to his era becomes much more complicated, and potentially more constitutive, still. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of Brown’s Constitution: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/johnbrown/brownconstitution.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

March 24, 2011: A Downside of Public Scholarship

Home solo for a few days and with a very cough-y littler fella, so Thursday's post got swallowed. Friday will be, I solemnly swear, the long-long-promised post. But for today, a chilling story from Wisconsin about a downside of public scholarship in this era of anti-education attacks:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/have-you-no-sense-of-decency-the-wm-cronon-story/73010/

Cronon is, as Fallows notes in that article, one of the very best (and most prominent) historians and AmericanStudies we've got. But it wouldn't matter if he were a random part-time faculty member at a community college, this would still be so deeply wrong and immoral as to beggar description.

More tomorrow,
Ben

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23, 2011: My Brother’s Keeper?

Postponing the promised post one more day to focus on a topic inspired both by my morning musical commute and the world around us. On my drive in I was listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (1984), one of the greatest rock albums of the 1980s but also a very interestingly divided one. The songs that made the album a huge hit and have continued to have a significant ongoing presence in our musical consciousness, a list that would definitely include “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life” and probably “So Far Away” as well, are drawn pretty much entirely from the album’s first half (well, first 5 of 9 songs); the final four songs form more of an extended vignette, set in what feels like a warring African nation (although the exact setting could be Central America, Southeast Asia, or a number of other regions), featuring strong and complex first-person voices narrating their stories of war and community and poverty and much else.
All four of those songs are really rich and interesting, but certainly the fourth and final one, the album’s title track “Brothers in Arms,” is the most beautiful and powerful. The beauty, particularly of the lead guitar work but also of the epic music in general, both contrasts and yet ultimately complements the song’s story and themes: the speaker is another soldier and one who, by the song’s end, is dying, never to return to the home which he has left for his wartime service with his comrades; yet his perspective and emphasis in the final verse shift the meaning of the title community in hugely significant ways: “Now the sun’s gone to hell / And the moon’s riding high / Let me bid you farewell / Every man has to die / But it’s written in the starlight / And every line on your palm / We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms.” This culminating image of the warring factions as a house divided, as fraternally bonded despite these foolish yet very fatal conflicts, might seem clich├ęd, but in context—both within what the song has built to and within this four-song vignette as a whole—the moment feels anything but; feels, in fact, like an idealized but deeply moving and in fact fundamentally true vision of a human community and family that is far more unified than our actions and beliefs tend to reflect.
So where does this all fit into an analysis or understanding of our current military actions in Libya, the contemporary and historical context against which I was listening to these songs this morning? Far from simply for sure. On the one hand, as I wrote in the Dresden/Vonnegut post, any and all wars become much more difficult to support and even wage if we view the civilians (and soldiers) of the opposing nation(s) as even fully and comparably human, much less our brothers and sisters. But on the other hand, a foreign policy driven by humanitarian concerns becomes, it seems to me, vitally necessary with precisely that same shift in perspective—it was, after all, the Libyan government that had begun making very brutal war on members of its own national and human family, and for one of the world’s most powerful militaries to stand by and allow such human crises and brutalities to unfold (whether in Libya, in the Ivory Coast, in Darfur, or wherever else) does not sit well with any vision of an international human family.
I don’t have any answers to such questions, and indeed I don’t know that there are any good answers (a recognition of which would go a long way toward silencing the vocal and to my mind oversimplifying critiques of the Obama administration from a variety of political perspectives). But certainly any AmericanStudier’s perspective has to admit that far too often we Americans have failed to view even our fellow citizens—much less others around the world—as our brothers and sisters; and that the times when we have been at our best have been precisely those moments when we have been able to see and respond to such connections, at home and abroad. More tomorrow, that long-promised post.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      The amazing use of it in a season finale of The West Wing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaUPDYXQUtw
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011: Their AIM is True [Repeat]

[New post coming tomorrow, but for now, a repeat of a first-week post for those readers who might not go back that far with me.]

Of the many social movements that originated in and out of the 1960s, I’m not sure that any has been as completely disappeared from our national narratives about that decade as the American Indian Movement (AIM). There are certainly obvious reasons for that absence—the movement represented a far more specific community than, say, feminism; it wasn’t responding to controversial contemporary events like the anti-war and hippie movements—and also, and just as certainly, symbolic ones, rooted in our centuries of mythmaking about the Vanishing Americans and our concurrent inability to engage in any consistent or in-depth way with the continuing national presence of Native Americans.
It’s also important to note that among AIM’s tactics was a kind of militancy that could turn into violence, and that at least often directly and provocatively challenged national power structures (as in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz between 1969 and 1971 or the much briefer takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972). No event seemed to highlight that potential for violence more than the June 1975 murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation, a shooting for which AIM activist Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned since shortly thereafter. Yet like so much of our history, and most especially the history of Native American communities and their relationship to the US government, the story is a lot more complicated than that. As usual, I can’t begin to get into all the details here, but whatever happened to Coler and Williams and whoever was responsible, it is certainly significant to note that a large number of AIM activists had themselves been killed on the Reservation in the years prior to 1975, and that a heavily armed, pro-government gang of tribal enforcers had established a kind of martial law in, it seems, at least implicit association with the FBI over those years.
As with so many of our darkest historical events, it seems clear that we’ll never know what really happened at Pine Ridge. But what we can and must do is to try to tell and remember these stories, and to do so by engaging as broadly and deeply as possible with both the multiple communities and perspectives to which they connect and the many national narratives and identities they implicate. And when it comes to Pine Ridge, it is, interestingly, a British filmmaker, Michael Apted, who has perhaps done so with the most complexity and success, in a pair of complementary 1992 films: the documentary Incident at Oglala and the feature film Thunderheart. Each is, I believe, a masterpiece of its genre, and each likewise blurs the lines between document and story, fact and fiction, in ways that do justice to the nuances of the event and our history and force us to think and engage ourselves with what is being portrayed, to engage with these narratives long after the film has ended.
It’s true that I have my own opinions about Pine Ridge; I don’t have a “Free Leonard Peltier” bumper sticker, but I could. But more important than my opinions, and more important even than this particular event, is our willingness to engage with the darkest and, potentially, the most nationally defining of our histories and presences—and no national community fits that bill more than Native Americans. More tomorrow, that promised post on the controversial American’s historical revisions.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A pretty thorough (if certainly partisan) account of the takeover of Alcatraz: http://siouxme.com/lodge/alcatraz_np.html
2)      The whole of Incident at Oglala: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4219825247691110146#
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21, 2011: Engaging Histories

One of the central questions with which any scholar or reader (or even any writer) of historical fiction has to engage is what works in the genre hope to accomplish. There are lots of potential answers to that question, but the fundamental divide is, it seems to me, between accuracy or authenticity on the one hand and effectiveness or readability on the other; between, that is, doing justice to the historical details and periods and events on which a particular novel focuses and doing right by the readers who have picked up said novel. Obviously the choice is not an either/or, but I would argue that as a matter of emphasis and priority these are two very different starting points; and I would go further and argue that much of what we have called historical fiction over the years has chosen very fully to focus on creating entertaining novels for which the history is a backdrop, rather than on creating historical worlds for which the novel is a foreground.
If that has been the emphasis much of the time, it’s an entirely understandable one; readers who seek historical accuracy can always turn to works of historical narrative and scholarship, after all, and a historical novelist who does not connect to his or her readers is likely to produce few sales and a short career. So long as the historical focus is not being explicitly falsified or mythologized, as (to echo a point from a few posts back) I have elsewhere argued that the historical details surrounding Reconstruction explicitly and destructively (to the book’s contemporary moment and for our overarching national narratives) are in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a historical novelist focusing mostly on creating compelling characters and story rather than on exploring all of the nuances of that historical world. But if and when a novelist makes that choice, I think it would be very useful for us to have a separate generic category in which we could place the resulting work: not historical fiction but, perhaps, period fiction? If we were to employ that second category in that way, it would allow the term “historical fiction” to be used solely for those novels that do work to create historical worlds first and foremost—and would hopefully likewise allow us to make clear that many such novels and novelists have been able to do so without sacrificing any of their engaging and entertaining qualities in the process.
At or near the top of that list, for me, are the novels in Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle, a series which Vidal has been writing since the late 1960s and which now includes at least six novels (which I will list in chronological rather than publication order; not included here is the recent The Golden Age [2000], only because I haven’t read it and so don’t feel able to comment on whether it’s really part of the series or not): Burr (1973); Lincoln (1984); 1876 (1976); Empire (1987); Hollywood (1990); and Washington, DC (1967). The novels certainly vary in quality, and the more recent novels in the series seem somewhat more explicitly driven by Vidal’s own contemporary political agenda and purposes (a charge that, from what I can tell, applies even more directly to Golden Age); it’s fair to say that a decent percentage of even the kind of genuinely historical fiction about which I’m writing here does feature such central political purposes, and while they don’t necessarily diminish the texts’ success at creating historical worlds, they do often provide the lenses through which we view those worlds. But the earlier books in Vidal’s series, and most especially Burr, are among America’s most fully realized and successful historical novels: both because of how richly they construct their historical worlds (Burr imagines no fewer than three such worlds: the Revolution, the turn of the 19th century, and the 1830s); and because of how immensely readable and fun they are. To coin a phrase, Burr made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think long and hard about—and in fact even do further research into—its historical and national subjects and stories, and that’s a pretty successful historical novel if you ask me.
More tomorrow, on a very famous and controversial historical figure and his own revisions of historical narratives.
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      One of the more interesting books on historical fiction, in which scholars write about historical novels and the novelists write back (two excerpts included through this site): http://books.simonandschuster.com/Novel-History/Mark-C-Carnes/9780684857664/excerpt_with_id/5185
3)      OPEN: Any historical novels you’d recommend?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20, 2011 [Academic work post 9]: No and Yes

Not a lot of time for ye olde blog today, so I’ll keep this short and, hopefully, to the point. The point, building on yesterday’s thoughts about rejection, is simply to make clear how consistent and dominant a facet of this academic world and career that response is, even when things are going well (as I am certainly fortunate enough to say that they have for me). The percentages, that is, will always it seems to me slant heavily in favor of the no’s; so the key is not to let them faze you, as the yes’s can and will come—and a tiny percentage of them can in fact mean great news. To highlight only the most significant three such collections of rejections with a single, solitary, more than sufficient acceptance:
1)      Book 1 was rejected by 22 publishers (off the top of my head, I’m not going to go back and count, but I think that’s right). It was accepted by 1, University of Alabama Press. Worked for me!
2)      Book 2 was rejected by 13 publishers (again relying on memory). It was accepted by 1, Palgrave Macmillan. So far they’ve been absolutely exemplary in every way, and most especially speed—I got them the final manuscript in August and the book is coming out in April!
3)      When I was on the job market in 2004, I sent out more than 60 (definitely not counting these) cover letters. I got 1 MLA interview, with Fitchburg State. And here I am!
All of which is just to say—and maybe this doesn’t need saying, but I think I could have used to really hear it during each of those experiences, so I’m saying it now for whatever it’s worth—that the no’s will likely always come (and I fully expect them to keep coming, as they did with the conference proposal yesterday), but the yes’s just might too. And the latter can be an order of magnitude less frequent and still mean a great career (if I don’t say so myself). More tomorrow, the long-promised post on the series of historical novels.
Ben
PS. No links needed here—but inspiring stories more than welcome!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 19, 2011 [Tribute Post 8]: Conference Connections

Just found out that a proposed conference panel on public scholarship, which I started thinking about in direct conjunction with this blog, wasn’t accepted (don’t worry, I don’t blame you). Certainly I could write an entire post on rejections, and perhaps will tomorrow (don’t worry, I’ll do so in an upbeat way). But it got me thinking about my favorite part of the conferences I’ve attended: the connections I’ve made with other folks there, many of which have continued long after the particular conference ended. And so here (in first-name alphabetical order) are five (well, six) such people I was fortunate enough to meet at conferences and whose work and voices I’m very proud to know and be in conversation with:
1)      Hunt and Cole: At my first-ever conference, in the summer of 2002, I met a couple of funny and friendly and smart as hell Northwestern grad students, William Huntting (Hunt) Howell and Coleman (Cole) Hutchison. A lot has happened in the nearly 9 years since, including both guys landing great jobs and putting out equally great work. But when we finally managed to get together again as a trio a month or so ago, it felt like 2002 all over again, in the best sense.
2)      Jason: Jason Stupp and I shared a panel on Richard Wright at the 2007 American Literature Association conference; Jason’s paper connected the role of the media in Native Son (1940) to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and was one of the best AmericanStudies talks I’ve ever heard. And a couple years later, he sent me (entirely out of the blue) one of the kindest emails I’ve ever gotten, letting me know that he’d happened to read and enjoy my first book. Great ideas and that kind of spontaneous collegiality will get you on a list like this every time.
3)      Kelley: I met Kelley Wagers at a Northeast MLA conference in the spring of 2005, and have found a way to get her on two other panels of mine (and one more proposed panel that didn’t end up happening) in the years since, which should tell you more than enough about what I think of her work and voice. Does it hurt that she’s written great articles on two of my favorite Americans, Du Bois and the novelist David Bradley? No, but even if Kelley were writing about, I dunno, Adam Smith, I’d still want to read her stuff.
4)      Michael: True, the “conference” at which I met Michael Thomas was the second Glory Days conference, dedicated entirely to Bruce Springsteen (I’ve attended and presented at both, shockingly). And true, Michael is a big Atlanta Braves and Dale Murphy fan who maintains a wonderful blog on the Boston Red Sox. So perhaps our connections are not strictly academic in nature—but they’re very AmericanStudies, and very Ben. Works for me.
5)      Veronica: I first met Veronica Hendrick in person (she had been part of a proposed panel of mine for that conference so we had communicated by email previously) the same day I interviewed for my Fitchburg State job, at the MLA conference in December 2004. Since she’s a very smart and impressive reader and writer of historical fiction, one of my most overarching and lifelong interests, and a generous and kind person to boot, that makes my memories of that particular day even more positive!
Conferences can be a drag sometimes, even when they don’t reject you! But as this list hopefully makes clear, I sure am glad I’ve gone to those that I have. More tomorrow, that upbeat post on rejection.
Ben
PS. Seven links to start with:
5)      Michael’s blog: http://thomasox.mlblogs.com/
7)      OPEN: Any unexpected and rewarding friendships you’d highlight?

Friday, March 18, 2011

March 18, 2011: So It Goes? (Repeat)

[For both practical (related to my own time) and philosophical (with the events of yesterday at the UN and in Libya) reasons, this post feels like a good choice for today.]
War stems from the worst attributes of human societies and communities, from the most divisive and negative forms of the things that can ideally unite and connect us (faith, nation, history, and many more), and it is thus no surprise that it consistently yields the worst and most horrific kinds of actions. Yet while it is easy for us Americans to recognize the existence of such wartime actions when they are undertaken by brutal dictators and regimes (ie, the Holocaust), and more difficult but still possible for us to admit that our own soldiers and government can take such actions when ill-advised or controversial wars go poorly (ie, My Lai or Abu Ghraib), I think our national narratives of World War II (to cite the most overt and clear example) still illustrate that we long to believe in the possibility of a purely good war, one in which those worst actions could never be taken by our own, entirely right side. Yet while any historical analysis must take into account the specifics of each war, including ways in which the war is indeed more potentially justified and necessary, events like the firebombing of Dresden exemplify the continuing presence of the horrific actions in even a “good war.”
As with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and (especially) Nagasaki, World War II historians and scholars have long debated the relative necessity, military and strategic value and effects, and potential war crime status of the Dresden bombing, which took place between February 13th and 15th of 1945, which featured nearly 4000 tons of bombs dropped on the German city by RAF and USAF planes, and which created a 15-square-mile firestorm that killed an estimate 23-24,000 inhabitants (many of them civilians). I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about the bombing’s details to weigh in on those questions, but I think that the entirety of the debate can elide the inescapable fact that the bombing was horrible and brutal in any case. That is, while it might well have been more militarily effective than (for example) My Lai, the fact remains that tens of thousands of civilians were killed, that a beautiful and culturally rich city was essentially razed, that the destruction wreaked on Dresden stretched far beyond any military meanings it might include; arguments that the Germans were doing the same to London with their own rockets during this period, while accurate, only highlight how much such horrific actions become the norm for every side during every war. While it is understandably (if sadly) necessary during a war for citizens of one nation not to think of an enemy nation’s citizens and cities as just as human and worth protecting as their own, it is I would argue crucial for us to remember that basic concept in the aftermath and memories of any and all wars.
If such broadly communal reflections were to emerge out of the ashes of Dresden, they would not be the first amazing human achievement to stem from its horrors; that honor would have to go to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969). Vonnegut was a prisoner of war held at Dresden, and so witnessed the firebombing and its aftermath firsthand; as he admits in the book’s meta-fictional first chapter, he attempted to write the novel for nearly twenty years before finally completing and publishing it. The resulting masterpiece is literally impossible to categorize or fit into one generic box: it includes science fiction concepts, time travel, and sequences set on an alien planet; features some of the best uses of black humor in any American text; includes a profoundly realistic portrayal of war and trauma and their lingering psychological and emotional effects; features from time to time pencil drawings that complement and deepen the novel’s style and themes; and so on. Yet at its core, I think Vonnegut’s work is most fully engaged with the seemingly contradictory but crucial duality with which I ended the prior paragraph: that war inevitably produces the worst kinds of violence and destruction and horror, as illustrated by the novel’s most repeated phrase, “So it goes,” used whenever death is mentioned in any context; and yet the possibility of a human and communal response not only in the face of those horrors, but because of and through them, as exemplified by Vonnegut’s novel itself and its ability to use storytelling to push back on the horrors and imagine (even if only in moments) something very different and much more ideal.
As the United States moves toward its tenth year in Afghanistan while directing drone strikes at multiple other nations, and as a potential third war commences in Libya, it can feel overwhelmingly difficult not to give into the logic of “So it goes,” not to see war and its accompanying horrors as unavoidable and constant parts of our world and identity. And perhaps they are—but if so, that only makes it that much more important to highlight and push back on those horrors, to refuse to accept either that they are simply necessary or that they can be excused as long as they happen to the enemy or are undertaken by us. There are few more exemplary contexts for those ideas than Dresden, and fewer still texts that push back more tragically and beautifully than Vonnegut’s. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A brief but very rich interview with one of the leading historians of the firebombing: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,607524,00.html
3)      OPEN: Pretty big and tough stuff here. Any thoughts, connections, disagreements to share?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17, 2011: Lit of the Irish

Interrupting our regularly scheduled programming for a special St. Patrick’s Day post, highlighting (in chronological order) five books that can tell us a lot (individually, but even more so in combination) about the Irish American experience:
1)      James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935): Farrell’s three Chicago-set Studs Lonigan novels are among the best representations not only of the Irish immigrant and urban experience, but of the Depression’s effects on working class American families and identities.
2)      Mary Doyle Curran, The Parish and the Hill (1948): Curran’s autobiographical novel traces, through the memories of its first-person narrator, three generations of an Irish American family with eloquence and power as they move between Kerry County in Ireland, an Irish neighborhood in a western Massachusetts mill town, and a gentrified Anglo community in that same setting.
3)      John McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (1996): McGreevy focuses on many  more communities than just the Irish within his Chicago setting, but few scholarly works have done as good a job analyzing the intersecting narratives of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and place that have so influenced Irish American experience in every sense.
4)      James Carroll, American Requiem: God,  My Father, and the War that Came Between Us (1996): Carroll’s narrative of family, spirituality, and Vietnam is as reflective and honest as any memoir I’ve read, and reveals both the multi-generational fault lines that comprised much of the late 20th century and the continuing impacts of Irish identity and experience on American individual and communal life.
5)      Michael Patrick MacDonald, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie (1999): There’s a reason MacDonald’s book was at one (and may still be) being made by director Ron Shelton into a film—this is a deeply compelling story of one family’s tragic and yet inspiring experiences within the world of South Boston in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Happy St. Paddy’s day! More tomorrow, that post on the series of historical novels.
Ben
PS. Six links to start with:
6)      OPEN: Any books you’d add?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16, 2011: The Whole Truth

When you think about how many of the inspiring Americans I’ve highlighted in this space are not collectively remembered at all—and how many others, like Frederick Douglass, are generally remembered but without, I would argue, the kinds of specific connections to texts and works that would make those memories truly meaningful—Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) has it pretty good. Not only is this freed slave and lifelong activist for African American and women’s rights remembered in our national narratives, but her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a stirring rebuke to both racist and sexist arguments delivered at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, is one of the few 19th-century American texts that has endured in any specific way into our collective 21st-century consciousness (I’ve seen excerpts from the speech in posters in high school classrooms, to cite one piece of evidence for that enduring presence).
“Ain’t” is indeed a great American speech, managing in just a few short paragraphs to develop arguments using all three principal rhetorical strategies: pathos, appeals to her audience’s emotions; logos, appeals to their reason; and ethos, appeals based on Truth’s own character as the speaker. It also nicely illustrates Truth’s unique perspective and voice, her fiery eloquence which had by this moment (only a year after the publication of her personal narrative had first brought her to the attention of abolitionists and activists throughout the North) already made her a sought-after speaker and presence at any event. Yet the speech’s representation of that voice, and more exactly the written version’s use (from its title on) of dialect to portray Truth’s manner of speaking, makes it somewhat less clear whether this one text should indeed exemplify the woman behind it. The most significant Truth biographer and scholar, Nell Irvin Painter, has indeed argued that the dialect version was produced after the fact and by white activists who, while friendly to Truth and seeking to help amplify her voice, might have overly emphasized her use of the vernacular to highlight her natural eloquence and the limitations that her early life in slavery had enforced on her education and identity. After all, Truth’s most famous contemporary African American activist, Frederick Douglass, had been accused at times of falsifying his history because of his highly literate voice and style; Truth’s dialect voice in the speech thus bears at least a multi-part relationship to issues of slavery, authenticity, and identity.
The layers and complications of Truth’s life and identity go well beyond those questions of dialect, however, and her name itself both partially obscures and yet reflects that complicated personal history. The name was one of her own choosing, bestowed upon herself in 1843 as she began a period of work as an itinerant preacher in New York and New England. She had been born Isabella Baumfree, and for the first four decades of her life had worked, both as a slave and then as a freed servant, in upstate New York; as she traces in her personal narrative, and as biographers and historians such as Painter have likewise documented, she moved between numerous families and households in those years, while having four children of her own as part of a forced marriage to a fellow slave. By far the most ambiguous and complex period of those decades was also perhaps one of the most formative of her spiritual perspective: between 1829 and 1834 she served as both housekeeper and preacher to a reformer named Elijah Pierson, a man who called his house “the Kingdom”; sometime in that period another reformed named Robert Matthias took over the house and turned it into a brief but full-blown cult, including polygamous marriages and other fanatical practices (as detailed in Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s compelling narrative history, The Kingdom of Matthias [1994]). The exact influences of these years and figures on Truth’s identity will never be known, not least because she wrote relatively little about them in her narrative; but no account of her life and perspective can entirely elide her apocalyptic religious visions, one unquestionably stoked by this time in the Kingdom.
I don’t mean, by highlighting that one period of Truth’s life, to imply that her later activism or writings must be analyzed through this lens; these were but five years of a more than 8-decade long life, one that included not only the abolitionist and women’s rights activism but also contributions to the formation of African American regiments during the Civil War and numerous post-bellum efforts on behalf of freed slaves, temperance, and opposition to capital punishment, among other continuing work. My main point, as ever, is that the more we know about this inspiring American’s identity and experiences and writings and work, the more we can understand the whole truth about who she was, who we were through the 19th century, and thus where we come from. More tomorrow, on a unique, funny, and very American series of historical novels.
Ben
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      The full text of Truth’s speech: http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/sojour.htm
4)      OPEN: What do you think?