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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 31, 2011: August Recap

August 1: What’s the Point: Pivoting off an online argument to consider the purposes and potential effects of a blog like this
August 2 [Tribute Post 20]: Inspiring Public School Teachers: Matt Damon gets me thinking about my many such inspirations, and public school teachers more generally
August 3: Two Talented, Troubling Americans: Speaking of Matt Damon, his two best, and two very American, roles—Tom Ripley and Jason Bourne
August 4: First to Go: What it really means that educational and social programs, like my Mom’s Bright Stars program, are usually the first to be sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts
August 5 [Scholarly Review 4]: Lawrence Rosenwald: On the political and scholarly efforts of a friend and very impressive AmericanStudier
August 6-7 [Link-Tastic Post 2]: Blogroll: 6 of the blogs that most engage and inspire me
August 8: Multi-talented: Norman Mailer and the kind of artistic genius that can produce a wide variety of impressive works
August 9: Narrating Our Battles: More Norman Mailer, this time The Armies of the Night and the value of narrating histories
August 10: Not Yet E-raced: Historical and contemporary realities that reveal the silliness of current narratives of reverse, anti-white racism
August 11: Born This Day: My Dad’s birthday inspires me to highlight three other interesting and important Americans born on August 11th
August 12: Click Through: A request for reading and responses over at the NEASA pre-conference blog—and since the blog continues, the request holds!
August 13-14 [Tribute Post 21]: Ezra Jack Keats: One of our most culturally and artistically significant children’s authors—and one of the late 20th century’s most important American artists period
August 15: Birthday Best: In honor of my 34th birthday, 34 of my favorite posts from this blog’s first 9 months
August 16: Me Too!: An important follow-up, using 5 other posts to make clear how much I continue to learn and change in response to these kinds of topics and themes
August 17: Cotton Mather’s Invisible Tragedy: A link to my latest Boston.com Salem “History Time” column, the first of two on Cotton Mather and the witch trials [I also posted separately on August 17th to ask folks to vote for me in the CBS Boston Most Valuable Blogger awards—see the link at right]
August 18: Why We’re Here, Tea Party Edition: A new study on contemporary political attitudes reveals just how fully the Tea Party subscribes to the Christian narrative of American identity, and reminds me of one of the main goals for my recent scholarly work
August 19: Writing Wrongs: On social movements, social realistic fiction, and the late 19th century author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
August 20-21: Legends of the Fall: 5 things I’m excited about as my professional and familial life, like our year, moves toward September and autumn
August 22: Virginia Is For Bloggers: My plan and schedule for blogging during our week in Virginia with the folks
August 23: Virginia, Cradle of American Studies: Five reasons, one per post-contact century, why Virginia is central to AmericanStudies
August 24: Cotton Mather’s American Legacy: The link to the second of those Boston.com Mather pieces, this one on his more inspiring legacy
August 25: Not Just Any John Smith: On one of early Virginia and America’s most interesting, and most egotistical, figures
August 26: The Indian Princess: Image, reality, and the stories of Pocahontas
August 29: Paying His Bill Forward: Why George Mason shouldn’t be a forgotten Founder
August 30: Elected Representatives: Two recent, and very politically and culturally representative, Virginia senatorial campaigns
That’s it! More tomorrow, a special post for the first day of a new semester,
Ben
PS. Any topics, texts, figures, themes, or events you’d like to see in this space?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30, 2011: Elected Representatives

Every election for every office, and every accompanying political campaign, has its unique and salient contexts and details, and one of the easiest but most dangerous things an AmericanStudier can do is to use a particular election (most often a presidential one, but this can apply easily to congressional elections as well) as a bellwether for broader national political or cultural trends. Certainly such trends are often part of an election's contexts--no one can dispute, for example, that the rise of the Tea Party influenced virtually every congressional election (and many others besides) in 2010--but they are not necessarily any more important than the candidates' personalities, narratives that become central to a campaign, significant local issues or histories, or any number of other factors.

On the other hand, I do believe that it is both possible and important to identify individual campaigns and candidates, and perhaps especially salient moments in relation to them, as particularly exemplary of certain broader trends. And to that end, I would highlight two Virginia Senatorial campaigns from the last two decades, and more exactly two individual moments during those campaigns, as hugely illustrative of changing political and cultural trends. The first moment was actually a repeated quote from Oliver North, the former Reagan administration official who managed to shed his Iran Contra disgrace and come very close to winning a Senate seat in 1994. North came as close as he did largely because of his very public status as a born-again Christian, a fact he highlighted again and again on the campaign trail by holding aloft a Bible and stating that "we know every word in the Bible is true." While North's marriage of religion to politics was partly personal (whether we read it as entirely sincere, a pragmatic move to distance himself from his criminal past, or some combination of both), it also signaled, as did the 1994 Gingrich revolution more generally, the full emergence onto the national stage of the Christian Conservative wing of the Republican Party, a wing that has in many ways come to dominate that party in the decades since.

The second exemplary moment was quite the opposite of North's repeated and staged line: an off the cuff remark from former Virginia governor and 2006 senatorial candidate George Allen that happened to be videotaped and so became a national and hugely significant story. Allen was holding an event in Southwest Virginia when he noticed S.R. Sidarth, a young man who was working for the Webb campaign (Allen's opponent) by attending and taping Allen's public events; Sidarth is Indian American and visibly dark-skinned, and Allen, seemingly responding to that fact, called the young man "macaca" (a word of ambiguous origin, possibly related to a North African monkey that Allen had seen during his youth in the region, possibly just a nonsensically racist term) and welcomed him "to America and the real Virginia." The subsequent outcry contributed significantly to Allen's eventual narrow loss to Webb, in an election that (like much of the 2006 congressional midterm) can be read as a foreshadowing of Obama's 2008 victory (in which he won Virginia, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had done so in decades). But I would also argue that every aspect of the moment signals not only just how fully multi-ethnic and -cultural identities had come to define 21st century America (Sidarth was born in Virginia to immigrant parents), but also how blatantly racist or fearful responses to such identities would remain part of our discourse but would no longer go unchallenged.

I'm not going to go so far as to claim that as Virginia goes, so goes the nation--much of the state is still significantly more conservative and thus Republican-dominated than the national political landscape. But certainly these individual moments and elections demonstrate how fully the broadest trends can be reflected in, as well as influenced by, elections in one state, including Ole Virginia. More tomorrow, the August recap,

Ben

PS. Three links to start with:

1) A 1995 article that includes North's (and Allen's) contributions to a national conference sponsored by a Religious Right organization:  http://www.publiceye.org/ifas/fw/9501/cwa.html

2) The video of Allen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI

3) OPEN: Any influential political campaigns or moments we should better remember?

Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29, 2011: Paying His Bill Forward

If you were an American Founder who wanted to be remembered by the succeeding few centuries' worth of Americans--and like most humans, the Founders did desire such remembrance, both for understandable psychological reasons and because it would indicate that they had done things for their fledgling nation worth remembering--your best bet was to get elected President. Perhaps Washington would have been well-remembered anyway (although he was a much less successful general than the stories typically indicate), probably Jefferson would have been, and Franklin was unique and impressive enough even without the presidency. But to cite the most clear evidence for my case, John Adams? Really?

Or, to put it another way, why do we remember John Adams so much more vividly than we do George Mason, principal author of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution? Why, for that matter, do we remember James Madison, who worked on the Bill with Mason, so much more fully? (If indeed we do, but I believe that to be the case.) I don't want to overstate the Presidency case, since both Adams and Madison were also (among other noteworthy attributes) married to profoundly impressive and inspirational American women, Abigail and Dolly, with whom they had long and storied relationships; without such a juicy part for Laura Linney as Abigail, the HBO miniseries on John Adams might have been a harder sell. But still, George was himself a very inspirational American--after losing his father at the age of 10, George went to live with his uncle, from whose library he virtually educated himself in the absence of much formal education--and there's similarly no reason to doubt that his own long marriage to Ann (which began when she was 16 and produced twelve children) couldn't yield an interesting colonial romance.

Even if George were entirely devoid of personal interest, however, his contribution to the founding era and our national identity would demand that we remember him more fully and centrally than we currently do. Historians differ on Mason's motivations for insisting on the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as it went to the states for ratification--some have argued that it was due primarily to his passionate interest in keeping religion separate from our government, while others have made the case that he shared with his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry an abiding distrust of federal government and a concurrent desire to emphasize states' rights--, just as Mason's attitudes toward slavery (both in general and as the Constitution represented the issue) have been similarly debated. But whatever his reasons, it's entirely fair to say that the Bill of Rights represents the most important part of our founding documents, because of all of the innovative and crucial individual rights it guarantees, because of its full presence as a portion devoted entirely to American citizens themselves (rather than their government), and because of how much it exemplifies the principle of amendment on which the whole Constitution was thoroughly based.

Yeah, he never ran for President; in many ways Mason's contributions to America ended with the Bill of Rights, in fact. But on virtually every other level, George Mason was as important as any of the Founders, and his influence has lasted well beyond almost all of them (including, indeed, John Adams). More tomorrow, on two very illustrative recent senatorial campaigns,

Ben

PS. Three links to start with:

1) Mason's draft of the Bill of Rights: http://www.constitution.org/gmason/amd_gmas.htm

2) A site with a lot of important contexts and details for the Bill: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html

3) OPEN: Any other Founders or influential Americans we should better remember?

Friday, August 26, 2011

August 26, 2011: The Indian Princess

If John Smith is relatively unknown in our communal conversations, Pocahontas, daughter of the Virginia chief Powhatan and Smith's continual partner in the historical narratives, suffers from the opposite problem: she's perhaps the most broadly famous Native American figure in our history. More exactly, compared even to other prominent Native Americans such as Sacagawea, Geronimo, or Sitting Bull, the name Pocahontas immediately conjures up (even for relatively non-historically minded Americans) a set of pretty specific images: sacrificing herself to save Smith, developing a pseudo-romantic relationship with him, eventually marrying another Englishman (John Rolfe) and ending her life in England with him, and so on.

Those images of Pocahontas have been around since Smith's own narrative (as the excerpts from his text at the first link in yesterday's post illustrate), so that in this case, the Disney version of history actually lines up quite closely with the most accepted national narratives (although I don't know that Pocahontas had as good a singing voice as Vanessa Williams in those earlier narratives). As best as scholars can tell from the scanty historical evidence (scanty other than, again, Smith's own somewhat unreliable account), the realities of Pocahontas' life and identity were significantly different, particularly in terms of her relationship with Smith: she was likely very young, something like 13 at the oldest, when they met, and so if she did save him and his fellow Englishmen from execution, it was likely for reasons other than those of romance in any explicit sense. Terrence Malick's film The New World (2005) seemingly attempts to represent those realities more accurately but achieves only mixed results, casting a very young Native American actress (Q'orianka Kilcher) as Pocahontas but still portraying her relationship with Colin Farrell's John Smith in explicitly romanticized ways.

But to my mind, the most interesting and meaningful American truths about Pocahontas don't depend on whether she was 12 or 20 when she met Smith, or whether they loved each other deeply or barely knew each other, or any variation on those questions. The most significant question to me is broader and more complicated still, and is the issue of whether her identity across the centuries of narratives is more stereotyped and limiting or more layered and humanizing, whether she's just an "other" falling for the superior white guy or is in fact an American who has a rich and full an identity as any European American figure. The answer, as with any of our most complicated questions, likely lies somewhere in the middle, and a great illustration of both sides is J.N. Barker's musical melodrama The Indian Princess (1809). Barker's Pocahontas is at once entirely a stereotype and yet a fleshed-out (and not in the Disney sense) heroine, just as his play's Englishmen run the gamut from stereotypical comic relief to complex (at least for an 1809 melodrama) heroes.

We're not likely to stop telling the story of Pocahontas, since it, like all of the most engaging American stories, connects to universal and powerful themes and narratives: love and sacrifice, loss and redemption, past and tradition vs. future and change. But it also, if more subtly, reveals much of what is both worst and best about our shared American identities, within and across ethnic and racial communities, and the more we can remember and retell those elements too, the more meaningful our stories of this Indian Princess will be. More Monday, on the most forgotten Virginian Founding Father,

Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Barker's play: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29230/29230-h/29230-h.htm

2) A scene from Malick's film featuring Pocahontas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX5dwhkQH00

3) OPEN: Any historical characters whose images you'd challenge or complicate?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25, 2011: Not Just Any John Smith

I don't know how much is generally known these days about John Smith, the first famous (English) Virginian with the deeply nondescript name. If anything, our cultural narratives about him probably depend in large part on the Mel Gibson-voiced character in Disney's Pocahontas (1995), or less famously the Colin Farrell version of him in Terence Malick's The New World (2005), about both of which I'll write more tomorrow. But this is one case where the actual historical figure is to my mind significantly more interesting than any Hollywood versions--and where the figure himself had a great deal to do with creating that interest.

Smith's life would already be pretty interesting in its own right, from his early years as a young soldier for hire (ie, mercenary) in Turkey to his ambiguous presence and role on the Virginia expedition (including of course his famous relationship with Pocahontas, about whom more tomorrow as well), and up to his later travels to New England and perspective on that other most prominent English colony and on English America's fledging identity and prospects more generally. But Smith wasn't content to let the details of his life impress posterity on their own terms, and so produced, in his various autobiographical writings--which always represented themselves as broader histories of Virginia and/or the other colonies, but somehow always came back around to Smith himself first and foremost--some of the most overtly and impressively self-aggrandizing texts in American history.

The portrayal of Smith in those texts certainly contributes to those self-aggrandizing efforts, especially in the passages that deal with his many victories of Native Americans, whether military (as when he single-handedly holds off hundreds of angry Natives) or diplomatic (as when, ostensibly a doomed captive, he wows his captors with his compass and then through sheer charisma impels Pocahontas to save him from his fate). But it's actually an even more fundamental narrative choice that really takes the cake here: Smith writes about himself in the third-person, narrating the adventures of Captain John Smith throughout these texts. It's true that he may have had various co-writers at times, but as best I can tell from the evidence--and as certainly lines up with the images of Smith we again get from the texts--it was Smith's choice to write about himself in this way, to make himself the hero of his own narratives in addition to, and in many ways rather than, the author and narrator of them.

Smith's life and identity have a great deal to tell us about not only the Virginia colony but the early settlement era in general, and so I can't recommend these texts enough for their AmericanStudies value. But does the hilarity factor in reading about, for example, the time that Captain Smith used his Native guide as a human shield while fighting off dozens of attackers, hurt my cause? No, no it doesn't. More tomorrow, on two centuries' of images of Smith's eternal narrative counterpart.

Ben

PS. Three links to start with:

1) Many links from Smith's autobiographical writings: http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/143smith-vir.htm

2) Perhaps another way that Smith will re-enter our communal consciousness: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/games/interactiveadventures/john-smith/

3) OPEN: Any surprisingly funny or engaging historical texts you'd share?


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 24, 2011: Cotton Mather’s American Legacy

Part deux of my, well, two-part series on Cotton Mather for the Globe and Boston.com Salem “History Time” column is here:
http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/salem/2011/08/history_time_cotton_mathers_am.html 

Thanks once again to Maggi Smith-Dalton, the editor and historian who is both the brains and driving force  behind this column. Check it out, and feel free to post any thoughts or comments here or there! More tomorrow, on the most egomaniacal and one of the most interesting Virginians ever,
Ben
PS. Any particularly complicated Americans you think we should remember more accurately?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23, 2011: Virginia, Cradle of AmericanStudies

Yes, that’s literally true, as this AmericanStudier was cradled in the warm embrace of Central Virginia throughout his young life. But here are five additional reasons, one per post-contact century, why Virginia exemplifies America at its complex best (I could have easily gone for the worst, but what kind of way would that be to start a vacation?):
1)      Bacon’s Rebellion (1676): Back in the dark ages when I took high school American history, this late 17th century revolt was portrayed as a distant predecessor to the Revolution; now, as the essay at the first link notes, scholars see it more as a power struggle between equally elite Virginia blue blood types. But whatever the causes or rationales, one thing has always been clear: the rebellion itself represented an unprecedented collaboration between poor whites (many of them indentured servants) and African Americans, illustrating just how racially interconnected this seemingly divided state has always been.
2)      Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th Century Virginia (1988): Bacon’s Rebellion might seem to be an isolated and extreme situation, but Sobel argues that when it comes to racial interconnectedness, it was anything but; in this book, one of the most exciting and inspiring works of AmericanStudies I’ve ever read, she lays out in impressive and convincing detail how much these distinct but equally American cultures influenced each other, and how much every aspect of 18th century Virginian life—from architecture to spirituality, work to worldview—was the result of those mutual influences.
3)      The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831): The 1831 Southampton slave revolt led by Turner was one of the bloodiest and most divisive moments in the decades before the Civil War, and thus, despite its justifiable causes, would to my mind belong on a worst-of list. The “Confession” apparently narrated by Turner to a local white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, from the prison where he was awaiting his execution, is no less fraught with racial tensions and conflicts, not least because it’s impossible to know just how much of the text’s striking voice is really Turner’s and how much was altered in some way by Gray. But that complex and confusing authorship does not elide the power nor the pathos of Turner’s perspective—and if anything, it yields a text that extends Sobel to illustrate that even for the worst of Virginian history and community it was by this time impossible to separate white from black with any certainty.
4)      William Styron, Confessions of Nat Turner (1967): I blogged about Styron’s novel, and particularly its striking and hugely controversial first-person narration by a fictionalized Nat Turner, here, and won’t restate those thoughts. While I find many of the direct critiques of the novel to be as fictionalized as anything within it, I certainly know of a great many AmericanStudiers whose opinions I deeply respect who feel similarly inclined to criticize the novel on many levels. But for me, as I wrote in that earlier post, the fact that a Virginian novelist chose to write this novel during the 1960s, and even more so the fact that he tried to construct a version of Turner’s voice for his narration, is an inspiring and profoundly American move; whatever we think about the novel that resulted, I believe we can and must agree that such cross-cultural sympathies and connections are worth our respect.
5)      Governor McDonnell’s Apology (2010): As will surprise precisely no one, I wasn’t a fan of Republican Governor Robert McDonnell from the jump, and wasn’t at all surprised when his April 2010 proclamation in honor of Civil War in Virginia (aka Confederate History) Month made no mention whatsoever of slavery. But I will admit to being both surprised and impressed when, admittedly after a week or so of angry responses and protests, McDonnell issued a revised proclamation apologizing for the elision. Most impressive to me was that McDonnell did not just apologize to “anyone I may have offended” or the like—he explicitly noted that slavery “led to the Civil War” (far from a given in much of the right’s recent historical revisionism). Whatever the motives or purposes of this second statement, it was, as former Governor Doug Wilder put it, the right thing to do, and the way that McDonnell did it added at least a bit of important and accurate historical context into what could be seen as simply a political controversy. Can’t argue with that!
Virginia, here we come, making some new 21st century memories for the next generation of AmericanStudiers! More tomorrow, my next Boston.com piece,
Ben
PS. Six links to start with:
1)      National Park Service piece on Bacon’s Rebellion: http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/bacons-rebellion.htm
3)      Full text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (multiple pages): http://www.melanet.com/nat/nat.html
4)      Styron and his novel at the century’s end: http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9812/styron.html
6)      OPEN: Any Virginia moments you’d add?

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 22, 2011: Virginia Is For Bloggers

Tomorrow we fly down to Virginia for a week with the parentals, about whom you’ve heard a good bit—and even from whom you’ve heard—in this space. To extend this weekend’s post, the trip will be a last hurrah of summer in all sorts of ways, and so I fully and happily expect to spend more time at the pool (for example) than blogging. I imagine you’ll all find ways to carry on for the week without quite as much AmericanStudies in your lives, although I’m sure it’ll be tough. But since I can’t quit you, fellow AmericanStudiers—hell, I don’t even wish I knew how to quit you—I’ll still be checking in more briefly (and most likely more informally) here, and wanted (as much to keep myself on track as for your no doubt insatiable curiosity) to pass along my planned schedule of posts:
Tuesday 8/23: Five Reasons Why Virginia is the Cradle of AmericanStudies
Wednesday 8/24: My Second Cotton Mather Piece for the Boston.com “History Time” Column
Thursday 8/25: John Smith Was One Cocky Dude
Friday 8/26: Images of Pocahontas
Monday 8/29: Remembering George Mason
Tuesday 8/30: On Two Bellwether Virginia Senatorial Campaigns
Wednesday 8/31 (Back in New England): August Recap
That’s the plan! More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What would you blog about your home state/province/town/place?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 20-21, 2011: Legends of the Fall

I don’t meant to rush you and what I’m sure will be another couple weeks of beaches and pools, lemonades and iced teas, baseball games and bbqs, but I’m thinking today about the fall; maybe that’s because we’ll be in Virginia for the last week of August (more on that trip and what it means for this blog coming on Monday), and when we get back it’ll be only one more day until my fall semester begins. In any case, here are five things I’m excited about as the fall approaches:
1)      The November release of a French collection of essays on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1998), including a essay by this AmericanStudier. Apparently Roth’s novel is on the current required American lit reading list for French students, and so an enterprising young French scholar, Velichka Ivanova, decided to edit the first French collection on the novel. She was kind enough to ask me if I could revise a portion of an earlier article that focuses on the book, and that’s my contribution to the volume. Not sure if I’ll have to start wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes once I get translated into Francais, but I’ll keep you posted.
2)      Stepping up my contributions to the work toward the creation of the American Writers Museum, and specifically my help on the NEH proposal for a traveling exhibition on immigrant literature that will help get that Museum off and running. The AWM is the brainchild of a retired Irish American engineer, Malcolm O’Hagan, and has garnered the support and efforts of a huge number of impressive scholars and librarians, museum administrators and public officials, and many others; I’m honored and incredibly excited to be on board as a scholarly advisor. With a January deadline for revisions to the traveling exhibit proposal, the fall promises to include lots of conference calls, rewrites, bibliographies, and co-writing. Can’t wait!
3)      The New England American Studies Association conference. I’ve bombarded you with enough info about this conference, and the corresponding pre-conference blog; if for some reason you’ve managed to stay blissfully ignorant of their existence or details, I’ll direct you to the links at #3 below. The conference will hopefully be a great time for all concerned, but for me—as I’m sure is always the case for the NEASA President in his or her one year of service—that weekend is going to mean the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work and almost two years of brainstorming and idealizing. Kind of like a wedding, only I very much hope that the attention is spread much more fully around all of our attendees, not least ‘cause there’s no way I’m wearing a tux.
4)      A new semester at Fitchburg State, and especially my first time teaching our English Department’s senior capstone course. This course brings together English majors from across our four tracks—Literature, Secondary Ed/Licensure, Professional Writing, and Theater—and asks them to reflect on their time in the department, to assemble a senior portfolio of their best work, to talk to each other about their respective tracks, and to consider what’s next in their lives (professionally and otherwise). I fully expect that these two sections will be different from any other course I’ve ever taught, and that, however much I plan and prep, I have no real idea what they will entail once they’re underway. Sounds good to me!
5)      Kindergarten! For my older son, that is. (And pre-K for my younger son, who would rightfully demand to be included here.) The rest of these items generally make me feel a combination of excited and stressed, with an emphasis on the former for sure. This one makes me feel both old (and bittersweet) and young (and nervous/excited) again, if that makes any sense. And if all of the other items are ultimately more about other people’s experiences—the collection’s readers, the Museum’s attendees, the conference’s participants, the Capstone’s students—this one of course is entirely about my son’s next step into, the next season of, his own developing world and life.
Bring on the fall! More this coming week, including Monday’s transition into my Virginia week,
Ben
PS. Six links to start with:
1)      Some info on the Roth book: http://rothsociety.org/?page_id=33&paged=2
3)      NEASA: http://neasa.org/; and the blog: http://neasaconference.blogspot.com
4)      My home away from home: http://fitchburgstate.edu/english/
5)      My son’s new home away from home: http://mitchell.needham.k12.ma.us/main/
6)      OPEN: What are you looking forward to this fall?

Friday, August 19, 2011

August 19, 2011: Writing Wrongs

One of the charges that can, with a good deal of accuracy, be leveled against many of the late 19th century’s numerous and important social movements is that they tended to exclude and even to discriminate against each other—against, that is, the beneficiaries of their fellow social movements. So, for example, the National Women’s Suffrage Association (the suffrage movement’s most prominent late 19th century organization) not only did not include African American women, but made overtly racist appeals to white Southerners in order to bolster its ranks and cause. Similarly, many of the era’s most prominent labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, often relied upon anti-black (esp. the AFL) and anti-immigrant (esp. the Knights) appeals to make their case for the needs of the particular communities of European American workers they mostly served. The practical and political rationales for these exclusions and appeals are clear and understandable, but it’s also easy to see how these kinds of circular firing squads among similarly progressive movements could be as practically and politically counterproductive as they are philosophically troubling, not least because it might lead the organizations to expend their energies (and receive attention for) attacking equally disenfranchised fellow Americans.
Perhaps social and political movements have to make such frustrating decisions; at the very least they certainly have no choice but to engage with such complex and far from ideal realities. On the other hand, works of fiction—and particularly novels within another of the late 19th century’s most significant developments, social realism—enjoy a significantly less limiting relationship to social and political realities. The best works of social realism must indeed acknowledge and engage with those realities, among others (including psychological ones), and must perhaps even create fictional characters and communities that are as constrained by those realities as their real-life contemporaries were. But in their overarching visions and constructed worlds, such novels can at the same time imagine broader and more inclusive communities, can bring together not only the Americans most affected by their chosen thematic focal points but also other Americans—both as characters within the texts and as audiences meeting and responding to them through the works—for whom the stakes of these social questions are of course ultimately just as present and salient as well. Moreover, any individual author can deal with multiple such social issues and themes across his or her works, an opportunity exemplified by the diverse and impressive career of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844-1911).
Phelps (Ward was her married name but most scholars refer to her by her maiden name) was best known in her era for a best-selling, career-spanning trilogy of spiritual novels about Christianity, Heaven, and mourning: The Gates Ajar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and Within the Gates (1901). But she was a passionate advocate for numerous social movements, especially women’s rights (she famously advocated that women burn their corsets) but also temperance, anti-poverty efforts, and animal rights (among others). And because she published more than twenty novels and dozens of stories in the course of her long career, she was able to explore each of those issues, and particularly those interconnected with women’s rights and experiences in America, with an incredible degree of breadth and depth. To highlight just three brief examples of this diversity, complexity, and quality: Phelps contributed, in 1882’s Doctor Zay, one of the best of the “woman doctor” novels about which I blogged here; her The Story of Avis (1877) creates in its titular protagonist (a very talented painter) one of America’s most detailed and powerful portrayals of the challenges of marriage and family for professional women, while also featuring numerous other distinct and equally nuanced female characters; and in the same year that The Gates Ajar launched her national career she published the short story “The Tenth of January” (1868), a gripping and terrifying rendition of an 1859 Lawrence (MA) mill fire in which dozens of young female mill workers were killed.
The social and political issues to which these texts connect are, again, as real and complex as those with which the suffragists and labor leaders engaged. And if the texts are freed from the responsibility of resolving the practical questions that such issues entail, that does not, to my mind, make them any less powerful and important as engagements with those issues; what they are, instead, are a concurrent and crucial collection of voices and sources, combining literary and historical value to produce a body of work which no AmericanStudier should ignore. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      “The Tenth of January”: http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a1730.pdf
3)      OPEN: Any authors of works you’d recommend as great at portraying complex social issues?

 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 18, 2011: Why We’re Here, Tea Party Edition

There are two entirely distinct, and in some ways even opposed, ways to interpret the name “Tea Party” (for the contemporary political organization, not the thing in Boston Harbor). The more “official,” or at least more widely disseminated and accepted, narrative is that the organization represents a grassroots, non- or widely bi-partisan rebellion against taxation, spending, and other forms of government interference; evidence for this narrative would include TEA serving as an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, the first organized protests occurring on or around April 15th (Tax Day) of 2009, and a variety of other symbolic statements of libertarian resistance to government. In this narrative, the organization’s likewise symbolic use of a historical event (that Harbor thing) is meant as a direct parallel, another occasion on which put-upon citizens, fed up with taxation and government interference in their lives, rebelled and helped begin a revolution (hence the references, for example, to Tea Party favorite Scott Brown’s senatorial victory in Massachusetts as “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World”).
That vision of the historical Tea Party is certainly over-simplified, neglecting for example the event’s substantial component of mob violence, but the real historical problem here is to my mind significantly deeper and more subtle. As historian Jill Lepore (among others) has thoroughly documented, the Tea Party has depended on Founding-era symbols and rhetoric for far more than just its name, has in fact utilized Revolutionary reenactors and costumes, Founders’ quotes and perspectives, and any and all other references to this historical era in constructing many of its overarching narratives, positions, and events. These historical references have often been, like the libertarian impulses, narrated as something bipartisan, broadly American, nationally shared: a desire to respect the Constitution, to live up to the ideals of Washington and Jefferson, to be the city on a hill, and so on. But I would argue precisely the opposite, that it is in their historical vision that the Tea Partiers reveal most explicitly their profoundly conservative and extreme perspective, an embrace of the traditional, Christian historical narrative that is as full-throated and mythologized as any our national discourse has ever witnessed.
I have believed that to be the case of the majority of Tea Partiers since the movement’s origins, but a recently released, five-year-long study of American political attitudes by two political scientists—many of the relevant results of which are discussed in the article at the first link—goes a long way toward quantifying that belief. Of the study’s many findings that could be marshaled in support of my prior paragraph’s last sentence, I will quote just the most salient one: “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.” I would take that statement one step further and argue, based on virtually every relevant statement and utterance and fact (such as the hugely prominent role that Glenn Beck and his favorite American “historian” David Barton, on whom see for example here, here, and here, have played in the Tea Party’s rise), that Tea Partiers believe that religion, and more specifically of course Christianity, played precisely such a prominent role in our government at its origin, just as they believe that America was from its origins centrally defined by white, Anglo, Christian, English-speaking inhabitants. This historical vision, encapsulated succinctly and thoroughly in the battle cry “I want my country back!,” is to my mind the most overarching narrative at the heart of the Tea Party’s identity and aims.
The real problem here is not that our media narratives of the Tea Party have tended to minimize this historical emphasis in favor of the small government one; it’s that as wrong as the Tea Partiers are about many of their economic beliefs (such as that Obama has raised all of their taxes), they are more profoundly mistaken still about American identity, both on the specific issue of religion and government and on the broader questions of our communal composition. I dedicated my whole second book to making that case, and so the seven “Book Posts” here (available under that category to the right), as well as these two “Meta-Posts,” elaborate my contrasting take on American identity. Here I’ll just stress that, of all the reasons to counter the Tea Party’s influence on American politics and culture, this historical one might just be the most serious and crucial. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A New York Times article on the study: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/opinion/crashing-the-tea-party.html?_r=1&hp
2)      Gordon Wood’s review of Lepore’s book The Whites of Their Eyes; Wood takes a more favorable view of the Tea Party’s use of history than do I, or at least treats it as one among many such uses more than I would: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/no-thanks-memories/?pagination=false
3)      OPEN: What do you think?
4)    UPDATE: A very relevant and very revealing piece by a woman who has been a part of the Tea Party movement for its whole existence: http://www.theawl.com/2011/08/what-i-learned-in-two-years-at-the-tea-party

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 17, 2011 [Special]: Vote Early and Often!

Well, I think you can only vote once a day (EDIT from the original which said only once period--thanks Kate!), but  ... this blog is nominated for a CBS Boston Most Valuable Blogger Award for 2011 (under the Miscellaneous category). If you get a chance and want to vote for me, here's the link:

http://boston.blogger.cbslocal.com/most-valuable-blogger/vote/misc/

Thanks!

Ben

August 17, 2011: Cotton Mather's Invisible Tragedy

Is the title of my second contribution to the Boston.com Salem History Time column, as part of a series on the witch trials:

http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/salem/2011/08/history_time_cotton_mathers_in.html

Thanks as ever to Maggi Smith-Dalton, the series' editor and all around impressive AmericanStudier, for the opportunity. Part 2, also on Mather, will be next Wednesday! More tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any thoughts on the witch trials, Mather, good men doing nothing in the face of evil, or anything else?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16, 2011: Me Too!

I wanted to follow up yesterday’s best-of-so-far post by making one thing very clear: I’m far from immune to the tendencies toward simplifying and mythologizing national narratives on which I often focus here, and so am just as much the audience for these posts as I am the author of them. To illustrate that point, here (in no particular order) are a few additional favorite posts to date, ones where my own narratives and perspective were explicitly part of what I was challenging:
1)      Lee and Longstreet: Growing up in Virginia, I was not only a Civil War buff, but also admittedly more a fan of the Confederate generals than the Union ones. (Stonewall Jackson vs. McClellan? Not even a contest.) Even into adulthood, I’ve bought into much of the deification of Robert E. Lee. But as I wrote here, that deification is both problematic and has come at the expense of a much more fully inspiring Confederate general, James Longstreet.
2)      Eisenhower: I’ve made no secret in this space of my progressive and liberal political perspective, and it can be tough not to bring that same perspective to my historical and AmericanStudies analyses. But it’s very important not to do so, at least not in any overarching or limiting way, as I hope this post on things to admire and emulate in Eisenhower’s policies and ideas makes clear.
3)      Robert Penn Warren and Segregation: Robert Penn Warren is on my short list of favorite and most inspiring American authors, and so it’s tempting to find ways to rationalize or excuse even his more troubling moments (such as his contribution to the polemical and conservative Southern collection I’ll Take My Stand). But forcing myself to remember and engage with that moment is both important and, as I wrote here, ultimately even more inspiring.
4)      Colonial Williamsburg and Historical Propaganda: I love reenactments of all kinds, including historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg that drop visitors directly into a reenacted past world. Learning about the 20th century and in many ways propagandistic purposes behind the creation and development of CW doesn’t diminish that love, necessarily—but it does remind me that reenactments, like any other historical narratives, are not free of such complicating and challenging contexts.
5)      The West Wing, the Rosenbergs, and the Head and Heart: One of my favorite West Wing episodes and one of my favorite Don Henley songs work together to help me think through how one’s personal perspective and beliefs can influence what we understand about the past, and the necessity of admitting and working to move beyond those influences.
In case it might ever seem as if I’ve got all the answers, these five posts, like many others and (I hope) the blog as a whole, illustrate just how fully my own understanding and analyses and perspective continue to develop and grow. We’re in this together! More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any simplifying narratives or perspectives of your own that you’ve had to confront or challenge?

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15, 2011: Birthday Best

In honor of this AmericanStudier’s 34th birthday, here (from oldest to most recent) are 34 of my favorite posts from the first year for this newest addition to the Railton family (forgive the self-indulgence, but it is my birthday, and for newer readers to this blog this might be a good reminder of some of my work over these last 9 months or so):
1)      The Wilmington Massacre and The Marrow of Tradition: My first full post, but also my first stab at two of this blog’s central purposes: narrating largely forgotten histories; and recommending texts we should all read.
2)      Pine Ridge, the American Indian Movement, and Apted’s Films: Ditto to those purposes, but also a post in which I interwove history, politics, identity, and different media in, I hope, a pretty exemplary American Studies way.
3)      The Shaw Memorial: I’ll freely admit that my first handful of posts were also just dedicated to texts and figures and moments and histories that I love—but the Memorial, like Chesnutt’s novel and Thunderheart in those first two links, is also a deeply inspiring work of American art.
4)      The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Most Amazing Baseball Game Ever: Probably my favorite post to date, maybe because it tells my favorite American story.
5)      Ely Parker: The post in which I came up with my idea for Ben’s American Hall of Inspiration; I know many of my posts can be pretty depressing, but hopefully the Hall can be a way for me to keep coming back to Americans whose stories and legacies are anything but.
6)      My Colleague Ian Williams’ Work with Incarcerated Americans: The first post where I made clear that we don’t need to look into our national history to find truly inspiring Americans and efforts.
7)      Rush Limbaugh’s Thanksgiving Nonsense: My first request, and the first post to engage directly with the kinds of false American histories being advanced by the contemporary right.
8)      The Pledge of Allegiance: Another central purpose for this blog is to complicate, and at times directly challenge and seek to change, some of our most accepted national and historical narratives. This is one of the most important such challenges.
9)      Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Rap: If you’re going to be an AmericanStudier, you have to be willing to analyze even those media and genres on which you’re far from an expert, and hopefully find interesting and valuable things to say in the process.
10)   Chinatown and the History of LA: At the same time, the best AmericanStudiers likewise have to be able to analyze their very favorite things (like this 1974 film, for me), and find ways to link them to broader American narratives and histories.
11)   The Statue of Liberty: Our national narratives about Lady Liberty are at least as ingrained as those about the Pledge of Allegiance—and just about as inaccurate.
12)   Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Parenting: Maybe the first post in which I really admitted my personal and intimate stakes in the topics I’m discussing here, and another of those texts everybody should read to boot.
13)   Dorothea Dix and Mental Health Reform: When it comes to a number of the people on whom I’ve focused here, I didn’t know nearly enough myself at the start of my research—making the posts as valuable for me as I could hope them to be for any other reader. This is one of those.
14)   Ben Franklin and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments: As with many dominant narratives, those Americans who argue most loudy in favor of limiting immigration usually do so in large part through false, or at best greatly oversimplified and partial, versions of our past.  
15)   Divorce in American History: Some of our narratives about the past and present seem so obvious as to be beyond dispute: such as the idea that divorce has become more common and more accepted in our contemporary society. Maybe, but as with every topic I’ve discussed here, the reality is a good bit more complicated.
16)   My Mom’s Guest Post on Margaret Wise Brown: The first of the many great guest posts I’ve been fortunate enough to feature here; I won’t link to the others, as you can and should find them by clicking the “Guest Posts” category on the right. And please—whether I’ve asked you specifically or not—feel free to contribute your own guest post down the road!
17)   JFK, Tucson, and the Rhetoric and Reality of Political Violence: The first post in which I deviated from my planned schedule to respond directly to a current event—something I’ve incorporated very fully into this blog in the months since.
18)   Tribute Post to Professor Alan Heimert: I’d say the same about the tribute posts that I did for the guest posts—both that they exemplify how fortunate I’ve been (in this case in the many amazing people and influences I’ve known) and that you should read them all (at the “Tribute Posts” category on the right).
19)   Martin Luther King: How do we remember the real, hugely complicated, and to my mind even more inspiring man, rather than the mythic ideal we’ve created of him? A pretty key AmericanStudies question, one worth asking of every truly inspiring American.
20)   Angel Island and Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free”: Immigration has been, I believe, my first frequent theme here, perhaps because, as this post illustrates, it can connect us so fully to so many of the darkest, richest, most powerful and significant national places and events, texts and histories.
21)   Dresden and Slaughterhouse Five: One of the events we Americans have worked most hard to forget, and one of the novels that most beautifully and compelling argues for the need to remember and retell every story.
22)   Valentine’s Day Lessons: Maybe my least analytical post, and also one of my favorites. It ain’t all academic, y’know.
23)   Tori Amos, Lara Logan, and Stories of Rape: One of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard helps me respond to one of the year’s most horrific stories.
24)   Peter Gomes and Faith: A tribute to one of the most inspiring Americans I’ve ever met, and some thoughts on the particularly complicated and important American theme he embodies for me.
25)   The Treaty of Tripoli and the Founders on Church and State: Sometimes our historical narratives are a lot more complicated than we think. And sometimes they’re just a lot simpler. Sorry, David Barton and Glenn Beck, but there’s literally no doubt of what the Founders felt about the separation of church and state the idea of America as a “Christian nation.”
26)   Newt Gingrich, Definitions of America, and Why We’re Here: The first of many posts (such as all those included in the “Book Posts” category on the right) in which I bring the ideas at the heart of my second book into my responses to AmericanStudies narratives and myths.
27)   Du Bois, Affirmative Action, and Obama: Donald Trump quickly and thoroughly revealed himself to be a racist jackass, but the core reasons for much of the opposition to affirmative action are both more widespread and more worth responding to than Trump’s buffoonery.
28)   Illegal Immigrants, Our Current Deportation Policies, and Empathy: What does deportation really mean and entail, who is affected, and at what human cost?
29)   Tribute to My Grandfather Art Railton: The saddest Railton event of the year leads me to reflect on the many inspiring qualities of my grandfather’s life, identity, and especially perspective.
30)   My Clearest Immigration Post: Cutting through some of the complexities and stating things as plainly as possible, in response to Sarah Palin’s historical falsehoods. Repeated and renamed with even more force here.
31)   Paul Revere, Longfellow, and Wikipedia: Another Sarah Palin-inspired post, this time on her revisions to the Paul Revere story and the question of what is “common knowledge” and what purposes it serves in our communal conversations.
32)   “Us vs. them” narratives, Muslim Americans, and Illegal Immigrants: The first of a couple posts to consider these particularly frustrating and divisive national narratives. The second, which also followed up my Norwegian terrorism response (linked below), is here.
33)   Abraham Cahan: The many impressive genres and writings of this turn of the century Jewish American, and why AmericanStudiers should work to push down boundaries between disciplines as much as possible.
34)   Terrorism, Norway, and Rhetoric: One of the latest and most important iterations of my using a current event to drive some American analyses—and likewise an illustration of just how fully interconnected international and American events and histories are.

That’s it for now! Thanks for all the readings and responses, and more tomorrow,
Ben
PS. As I’ve asked before, any topics or figures or texts or issues you’d like me to feature here?