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Friday, September 30, 2011

September 30, 2011: September Recap

September 1: First Questions: On the first day of classes, the things I ask my students there to start hearing their voices and perspectives, and how my readers here might answer them.

September 2: Not Tortured Enough: On the most disheartening aspect of the torture debate—the fact that it exists in America at all, and with such little (all things considered) angst.
September 3 [Tribute Post 22]: New Colleagues: On the many, diverse and consistently amazing new folks I’ve been fortunate enough to help welcome to Fitchburg State, in and outside of the English Department, over my time here.
September 5: Labor Day Special: Highlighting five earlier posts that engage with different texts, figures, moments, and themes related to work in America.
September 6: The Great War and Modern Bloggers: On a couple of the most significant and revealing current debates about the Civil War, and the great work being done by blogger historians and writers in those conversations.
September 7: All the Rage: On angry young ‘uns, protest music, and Rage Against the Machine.
September 8: My Bad, Piano Man: Feeling as if I insulted Billy Joel a bit in the last post, I make amends by highlighting five of his best and most AmericanStudies songs.
September 9: Triple Play: Rounding out this trio of posts on AmericanStudies and music with a post on one of Bruce’s most underappreciated and great AmericanStudies songs, “Galveston Bay”
September 10-11: Rising to the Occasion: On Abraham Lincoln, Bruce’s The Rising, and the art of responding to huge national moments.
September 12: The Neverending Story: On the horrible things that we do in war, and why the “War on Terror” narrative might just make those horrible things a permanent part of our national identity.
September 13: Great American Hypocrites: On our traditional of national hypocrisy, Roy Cohn’s exemplary version of those narratives, and Tony Kushner’s exemplary recreation of Cohn and them in Angels in America.
September 14: The Transnational Turn: On the trend toward transnational AmericanStudies; or, why I feel okay writing about Midnight Oil on this blog.
September 15: Speaking of Hypocrisy: A brief follow-up on the Pennsylvania GOP/Tea Party’s efforts to change the state’s electoral college votes for the 2012 election.
September 16: Get Out the Vote: On the dual and interlocked histories of voters’ rights activism and violent voter suppression in America.
September 17-18 [Guest Post of Sorts]: Life Support: Responses, by me a bit and by an impassioned and impressive DailyKos diarist at length, on the cheers for the death of a hypothetical uninsured American at a GOP presidential debate.
September 19: Still Fresh: On teaching and reading those American literary texts that, whatever their time period and historical contexts, still feel as if they speak right to our 21st century selves.
September 20: Creative Histories: On Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s poetic and historical works, and the 19th century’s often exemplary blurrings of such generic categories and boundaries.
September 21: Dead Certainty: On the death penalty, certainty vs. ambiguity, and the things that, once they’re done, can never be undone.
September 22 [Tribute Post 23]: Elizabeth Warren: On the worst and best of what Harvard can mean in our contemporary and national conversations, and the senatorial candidate who very much embodies and articulates the best.
September 23-25 [Scholarly Review 5]: Recommended Reading: Six great, recent published AmericanStudies works by colleagues and teachers and friends, all of which are well worth your time.
September 26: The Post of the Seven Links: Inspired by a great trip to Salem (MA), seven institutions and individuals doing impressive AmericanStudies work in and through that city.
September 27: Accent-uate the Positive: On Hispanic teachers in Arizona, and why the most defining American language is partly accented English but even more fully cross-linguistic, accented conversations in all directions and cultures.
September 28: Wandering, Marvelous, American (!) Misadventures: On the young adult, fantasy, and utterly fantastic works of (American writer, I just learned) Lloyd Alexander.
September 29: Stealing Home [Repeat]: As the baseball season ends up with a whimper for both my Atlanta Braves and the local favorites the Boston Red Sox, I retreat to one of the most inspiring AmericanStudise and baseball stories I know.
That’s it! More this weekend, a special post in honor of my sister’s wedding!
Ben
PS. As I’ve asked with prior recaps, any topics, texts, figures, themes, events, or other focal points you’d like to see in this space? And, even more importantly, any guest posts you’d love to contribute?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September 29, 2011: Stealing Home [Repeat]

[As my beloved Braves culminate, all too appropriately, one of the worst months in baseball history, I decided to focus on one of the most inspiring baseball stories I know. It’s a repeat, but it’s been a while, and it’s probably my favorite blog post to date as well. So here it is—a reason to believe, in America and in baseball, even when things on both fronts seem pretty bleak.]

There are a couple of particularly salient reasons why I wish we included the Chinese Exclusion Act a lot more fully in our national narratives. For one thing, we tend to talk about legal and illegal immigration as if they represent stable and longstanding categories, when the reality is that the first immigration laws (and the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, is one of the very first) were created relatively recently and were designed entirely to restrict immigration by certain peoples and ethnicities toward whom prejudice was particularly high. Anti-immigrant nativism was nothing new in the 1880s (just ask the Germans, against whom Ben Franklin railed in the 1750s; or the Irish, in opposition to whom an entire political party, the Know Nothings, was created in the 1850s), but this was the first time that a federal law was created precisely to entrench that prejudice and counter those arrivals of a particular geographical and racial origin (in this case the so-called Yellow Peril). We tend to think of illegal immigrants as different from legal ones because the former have chosen to break our laws, but the Chinese Exclusion Act (and every other immigration law for the next eighty years at least) makes clear how much the differentiation is both created by the laws themselves (much more than individuals’ choices) and connected to racial and national identities from the outset.
But that’s not even the most pernicious, nor the most salient, aspect of the Exclusion Act. Because the law didn’t just stop immigration by its targeted groups—it led directly to the forcible expulsion of numerous immigrants already in the United States, including some who had been here for decades and become as naturalized as they could possibly be, including in a few cases achieving citizenship. No such story is more frustrating and tragic than that of Yung Wing, who had arrived in Connecticut in the late 1840s (one of the first documented Chinese arrivals) as an emissary of the Chinese government and part of a Christian missionary program; Yung went on to graduate from Yale in 1854, to form a program and school for Chinese American young men in the years afterward, to try (unsuccessfully but admirably) to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War, and to marry Mary Kellogg, a local woman with whom he had two sons and built a family and life in Connecticut (earning his citizenship along the way). By the early 1880s, his school had blossomed into a true home and touchpoint for many Chinese Americans finding their way in the United States; the students had for example formed a baseball team, the Celestials, who competed against other local teams (led in part, as apparently all baseball teams must be, by a pitcher nicknamed Lefty). But the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment, led by a particularly vehement labor activist named Denis Kearney, began to focus its fury on Yung and his school; everything came to a head in 1880, when a number of graduates applied for admission to West Point and Annapolis and, in direct violation of treaties between the US and China, were rejected. Deeply offended, the Chinese government withdrew all support of Yung’s school, and that lack of support combined with the US government’s opposition forced the school to close; at the same time, and much more tragically, Yung and all his students lost their status as residents (Yung’s citizenship was stripped from him) and were forced to return to China.
Yung left directly, leaving behind his wife and sons; he returned to the US in 1902 as, you guessed it, an illegal immigrant, in time to see his younger son graduate from Yale, but apparently ended his life as an impoverished tenant in a Connecticut boarding house (I admit to not knowing whether he was able to be with or even continue to see his wife and children there, but man I hope so). But the students traveled to California to await passage on a ship to China, and while they were there, an Oakland baseball team challenged them to a game; it’s impossible to know for sure what that local team’s motivations were—whether, that is, good or bad sportsmanship was the source of their challenge—, but the overall response makes clear that the Chinese were generally expected to lose and lose big (as one of the students put it, “the Oakland men imagined that they were going to have a walk-over” [cited in a book called The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity, p.182]). But Lefty was at his best, and the Celestials won their final game. And then home was stolen from them, and they boarded their ship and left behind the country that had become more theirs than it will ever be someone like Kearney’s.
Hard to imagine a more amazing true story than that one, and if and when I ever write my screenplay, this is going to be the basis for it; Stealing Home is my working title. But the story isn’t just a crazy combination of depressing and inspiring, tragic and heroic—it’s also so damn emblematic of how much on the one hand our conversations about immigration have always been driven by fear and xenophobia and racism, and yet, ironically but crucially, how much on the other hand some of the most fully and perfectly American stories and lives have been precisely those of immigrant Americans like Yung and his students. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The text of the Exclusion Act: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=old&doc=47

2)      The transcript for part 1 (of 5) of PBS/Bill Moyer’s series on the Chinese American experience, Becoming American, through which I first learned about this story: http://www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/program1_transcript.pdf

3)      OPEN: Not to repeat myself, but whattaya got?




Wednesday, September 28, 2011

September 28, 2011: Wandering, Marvelous, American (!) Misadventures

I knew when I created this blog that defining the focus in the way that I did meant I’d have to leave out some of the authors, artists, and works that have meant the most to me; and while I did find a way to include Alistair MacLean and Christopher Nolan in my Valentine’s Day special, and Midnight Oil in that recent transnational post, the fact remains that this is an AmericanStudies blog, and so I can’t start writing at length about Agatha Christie and Wilkie Collins, or C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (to cite four of the authors who most influenced my literary and imaginative tastes and ideas as they developed), without losing my raison d’etre (he said in heavily accented French). Up until a day or two ago I would have sadly consigned one of my very favorite young adult and fantasy novelists, Lloyd Alexander, to the same off-limits category—but then I found out that he was in fact born and raised (and lived most of his life) in Drexel Hill, just outside of Philadelphia, and that his often European-feeling (and specifically at times Welsh-mythologly-inspired) fantasy novels and worlds were the result of his World War II training and service overseas. So Alexander is not only an American writer, but a transnational and cross-cultural one at that, making him just about the perfect blog subject after all.
Alexander is best known for the Chronicles of Prydain, a five-book high fantasy epic that he originally published in the 1960s; the final book, The High King (1968), won the 1969 Newbery Medal, and the series only gained in prominence a couple decades later with the 1985 release of the Disney film based on the (Newbery-nominated) second book, The Black Cauldron (1965). Certainly all five works do a remarkable job balancing fantastic worlds and characters with deeply universal themes, and are laced with Alexander’s wry and engaging sense of humor despite the unquestionably evil and threatening adversaries. Yet the volume that most impacted this young AmericanStudier, the fourth book Taran Wanderer (1967), was also the least seemingly crucial to the series as a whole; two of the three main characters do not appear, neither (to my memory) does the chief villain or his henchmen, and the book focuses on the hero Taran’s personal quest to discover more about his heritage and the world around him. Maybe if I had been reading the series as the books were released I would have been frustrated with this detour from the main plotline—but without that issue, I could appreciate Wanderer for what it is, which is one of the most powerfully intimate and reflective works on identity, family, and young adulthood I’ve ever read. Taran can’t fight, and definitely can’t hope to win, the high-stakes battles until he follows that wandering journey through to its crucial endpoints—and who among us can?
I don’t know that Alexander wrote a better or more significant book than Wanderer, but I’ll freely and gladly admit that my personal favorite of his books (among many very worthwhile choices) is a stand-alone novel, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970). Sebastian won a National Book Award, so it’s not exactly right to call it underappreciated or –read, but at the same time I don’t know that it has maintained a significant place in our cultural consciousness. And man should it—not only because its tale of a wayward musician and a runaway princess and their flight away from a tyrannical ruler and into all sorts of, yes, marvelous misadventures is one of the funniest and most engaging reads any young (or old) adult could hope for; but also because it makes, in an entirely subtle and non-preachy and thoroughly convincing way, the best possible case for Alexander’s belief (as he put it in the 1969 Newbery acceptance speech) that “an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom.” The importance of that belief is not, of course, any more specific to America than is Sebastian’s imaginary homeland—but I have to think that Alexander’s specifically American identity and experiences, from his childhood in Philly to his World War II service to all that followed, informed his perspective and voice and the fantastic yet profoundly grounded novels they produced.
And yeah, I’m just excited to be able to claim Lloyd as a favorite American writer. What can I say, we AmerianStudiers like that kind of thing. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Alexander’s 2007 Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/19/arts/19alexander.html

2)      A great (three-part) YouTube tribute to Alexander: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jln9VPoP3Tw

3)      OPEN: Any hugely influential writers (American or not) you’d highlight from your own life?


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

September 27, 2011: Accent-uate the Positive

There are a variety of significant reasons, many addressed specifically and at length in those pieces compiled here under the “Book Posts” category, why I would and in my recent book did define 16th and 17th-century individuals like Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Mary Rowlandson as the first Americans. But if I were trying to boil down those complex combinations of factors, of experiences and identities, to representative moments, I would in both of their cases point to cross-linguistic conversations. De Vaca had many such conversations over the course of his nine years spent crossing the continent with a range of Native American tribes and communities; Rowlandson had her share as well during the few months she spent as a captive of the Wampanoag tribe during King Philip’s War, but her narrative of that captivity does feature one particularly striking such conversation: an exchange with King Philip himself, when the Wampanoag chief (and officially arch-enemy of Rowlandson’s Puritan community) asks her to “smoke it” (a peace pipe) with him, precipitating a series of moments in which Rowlandson sews various articles of clothing for Philip and other Wampanoags in exchange for food (some of which she then makes into a meal for her own “master” and his wife).

Rowlandson doesn’t specify whether those exchanges took place in English or Wampanoag, but the reality is almost certainly that they comprised a mixture of both languages—with each person’s version of the other culture’s language heavily accented, far from perfect, but finding a way to express his or her perspective to the other all the same. That reality would certainly likewise be the case for De Vaca’s exchanges with his Native interlocutors; for the conversations between Tisquantum (Squanto) and the Pilgrims that proved so vital to the Plymouth community’s survival in its harrowing early months; for the potentially fatal but ultimately beneficial dialogue between John Smith, Virginia Native chief Powhatan, Powhatan’s young daughter Pocahontas, and others; and for so many of the foundational conversations on which American identity and community has been built from its earlier moments. Each of those conversations had plenty of specific and distinct contexts and details, but it’s entirely fair to say that each was conducted in multiple, heavily accented languages, with members of different cultures and communities speaking and reaching across the linguistic and other gaps between their identities to find their way to a hesitant and partial and fragile but damn crucial common ground.
It’s with all of this in mind that I read, with great frustration, a recent story about a longstanding Arizona policy to investigate public school teachers to determine if their accents (largely Hispanic ones in that state, of course) are sufficiently muted to allow them (in the state’s eyes) to successfully instruct their students. The first and not at all insignificant question that comes to mind is what exactly the nationwide response would be if the state of Alabama instituted a similar policy for Southern accents, or the state of New York for Long Island ones; and what exactly the difference is between those accents and an Arizona Hispanic one. But clearly present as the racial and ethnic discrimination behind such a policy might be, even more fundamental here is the assumption that non-accented English is the norm in America, that the accent is a strange or foreign element to our language. Part of an answer would be to highlight the diverse and evolving but always present accents with which English has been spoken here throughout the centuries. But even better would be the recognition that if we have a national language at all, it’s not English, nor any other single language, nor even a multicultural mélange of all our languages—but rather that an American language exists, when and where it most genuinely does, in conversations between and across and through those distinct languages, heavily accented but speaking to each other nonetheless.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:

2)      Rowlandson’s narrative (the conversation with Philip is in the “Eighth Remove”): http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/rownarr.html

3)      OPEN: What do you think?


Monday, September 26, 2011

September 26, 2011: The Post of the Seven Links

I spent a very enjoyable and productive couple hours in Salem, Massachusetts this past Friday, chatting with an AmericanStudies colleague (on whom more momentarily) there, and getting to see a bit of the amazing living history museum that is much of the city’s historic district. It’s given me some exciting ideas for next spring New England American Studies Association’s Spring Colloquium, details I’m sure I’ll be sharing in this space as they develop. For today, I wanted to highlight seven of the places and people that make Salem such an exciting AmericanStudies space (none of which focus on witches!):

1)      The House of the Seven Gables: The source for Hawthorne’s 1851 novel has long been, as I learned this past week, much more than just a historic residence—it was turned into a settlement house (a la Jane Addams) at the same time that it became a historic recreation. And the current Museum very successfully continues both of those legacies, remembering the past while partnering with community organizations and efforts in the present.

2)      The Friendship: The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is a rich AmericanStudies resource for a variety of reasons, but none is more exemplary than the recreation of Friendship, a 1797 merchant vessel. Not only is the recreated ship entirely seagoing, but it’s docked next to an equally authentically recreated historic warehouse, creating a pitch-perfect little glimpse of an 18th century New England port.

3)      St. Joseph Hall: As the Italian organ-grinder in Hawthorne’s novel illustrates, Salem has long included a multi-national immigrant community. But it was really around the last few decades of the 19th century and first few of the 20th century that Salem’s numerous ethnic neighborhoods blossomed, and the National Park Service has begun turning the waterfront St. Joseph Hall into a living tribute to one such community, the Polish neighborhood. It’s a work in progress, but a great part of the city’s continuing efforts to celebrate its multi-ethnic heritage and embrace its continued cross-cultural identity.

4)      Peabody Essex Museum: The Peabody Essex is first and foremost an art and culture museum, and a strong one as well as one of our nation’s oldest. But as the “Learn and Play” category on the Museum’s website highlights, it’s also working hard to become a more interactive and dialogic experience, not only for its youngest visitors but in a variety of exhibits and areas for everybody. And if you click on “Exhibitions,” it’ll quickly become clear that the Museum’s evolving and compelling definition of art and culture is well able to keep pace with 21st century America’s transnational and multimedia identity.

5)      Salem State University’s American Studies Concentration: Salem State is the only other University in the State U. system to offer an AmericanStudies concentration, making it and my own Fitchburg State an important potential partnership as folks like me (and my colleague at link #6) continue our efforts to grow AmericanStudies programs and conversations in that state and region. Like FSU’s Salem State’s isn’t a full separate major yet, but its existence signals both a core group of faculty and students connected to these conversations and an important starting point and model for that continued growth and expansion. I look forward to working with them a lot more, and particularly with…

6)      Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello: Liz is the Interdisciplinary Studies faculty member who directs SSU’s American Studies concentration, but she’s also got her hand in just about every aspect of the city’s historical and AmericanStudies efforts, and was my guide for Friday’s tour. And as her biography and blog at the Public Humanist site (linked) illustrate, she’s also deeply committed to the kinds of public scholarly engagements and dialogues toward which I’m increasingly and passionately moving in my own work these days. Just a great local and regional AmericanStudies voice, and one with whom I look forward to working a lot more.

7)      The Daltons: Maggi Smith-Dalton is, among other lead roles in Salem and AmericanStudies efforts, the president of the Salem History Society and the editor of the Boston Globe’s online “History Time” series to which I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute a few columns over the last few months. But it’s in her joint musical performance, history, education, and outreach work with her husband Jim Dalton that she’s doing some of the most innovative, engaging, and important AmericanStudies work in the area and region. It’s hard to capture that kind of performative AmericanStudies work in a website, and if you get a chance to hear ‘em live you most definitely should—but as with all seven of these places and people, the links can at least give you a sense of Salem’s rich and ongoing public scholarly identity.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any places or people whose AmericanStudies conversations or contributions you’d highlight?


Friday, September 23, 2011

September 23-25, 2011 [Scholarly Review 5]: Recommended Reading

I’m very busy for the next few days, but the timing works out here—the faculty reading and writing group at Fitchburg State of which I’m part had a great first meeting of the semester this past week, and it’s gotten me thinking about all the great scholarly work being done by colleagues, broadly and ideally defined, around the country. Much of that work can seem to vanish into the ether sometimes, which is frustrating not only because of how much of ourselves we put into it, but also and more importantly because of how much we do the work (in every case I’ve ever encountered) in the hopes of entering into conversations and getting feedback. So in that spirit, here are some engaging and interesting recent scholarly and AmericanStudies works, by colleagues and teachers and friends, that you should think about checking out (literally if you’ve got a good library nearby!):






I could go on, but that’s a great half-dozen to start you out! More next week,
Ben
PS. Any recommendations to send back my way?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 22, 2011 [Tribute Post 23]: Elizabeth Warren

There’s been a good bit of chatter on the news and politics front over the last few days about a forthcoming book on the Obama White House by political journalist Ron Suskind, and especially on the negative aspects of the tone and working environment in the administration that his book highlights. Front and center in those conversations, to the surprise of exactly nobody who has any familiarity or association with the guy, is former economic advisor Larry Summers; I’ve been a non-fan of Summers’ since his time as the president of Harvard, where I got to see first-hand his efforts to (among other delightful contributions) crush student support for a workers’ campaign for a living wage and advance an (at best) seriously faulty biological argument for women’s shrinking but still present achievement gap in fields like science and math. Whatever the value of his economic ideas (and folks who know a lot more about that than me have rigorously critiqued them as well), the guy is pretty clearly a bully and a jackass, the worst example of a stereotypical Harvard prig.

Fortunately for those of us who would like that stereotype not to be the only prominent image of Harvard in our contemporary culture, there’s another, and much more thoroughly admirable and impressive, noteworthy representative of the institution making a splash in our current moment as well: Elizabeth Warren, the former Obama nominee to direct the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and current Harvard Law Professor who has recently announced her campaign for the Massachusetts Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown. One of my favorite moments in recent political life, in fact, came at an early Warren campaign stop in Springfield, when she responded to a question about whether her position at the (stereotypically elitist) academic institution might hurt her chances: “I grew up hanging on to the edge of the middle class by my fingernails,” she replied. “All I can say is I’ve been there. I've lived this. My family lived one pink slip, one bad diagnosis away from falling off the economic cliff. Yeah, I've got a fancy job at Harvard and I've gotta tell you, I'm proud of that job. I worked hard to get there. I wasn't born at Harvard. I was born to a family that had to work for everything it's got.” Not too many moments (outside of Braves baseball and my boys’ various successes) make me literally cheer out loud, but I’ll cop to doing so the first time I read those lines.

Much more important than her Harvard ties, of course, are Warren’s central, consistent, and (by all accounts) very genuine efforts on behalf of the American middle class. As those lines also illustrate, her own background and life story give her a clear and passionate appreciation for the dangers and obstacles confronted by that community, and she has spent the last few years in particular fighting hard against the forces (most notably on Wall Street, but increasingly in Washington as well of course) that have heightened those dangers and obstacles in so many ways. It’s of course fair to say that no one Senator or Congressperson or person period is going to be able to push back against all those efforts with any absolute success, but as an English professor and an AmericanStudier, I believe that words and rhetoric matter a great deal—and having somebody running for elected office who’s willing to put things that bluntly and strongly, as she does again in both the short video at the first link below and the campaign announcement at the second, who can and clearly will make the strongest possible case for the communal and social programs and perspectives of American progressivism and liberalism, has already made this pointy-headed academic very, very happy.
But just to be clear: the things for which Warren is advocating are, or at least should be, no more limited to liberals or Democrats than they are to academics or Harvard. These are core American values and narratives, ideas that represent some of the very best of our national community, that transcend any particular political moment. Warren’s campaign has a chance, in a small way, to do that too, which makes it that much more worth our attention and support. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Great short video of Warren’s blunt and pitch-perfect take on the whole “class warfare” idea: http://www.rumproast.com/index.php/site/comments/i_got_your_class_warfare_right_here/

2)      Warren’s campaign site: http://elizabethwarren.com/

3)      OPEN: Anybody or anything you’re excited about in the wilderness of our current politics?


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September 21, 2011: Dead Certainty

I’ve linked a couple different times to my post on Steve Earle, Dead Man Walking, and the death penalty; I certainly still feel, as I wrote there, that the most (and perhaps to me the only) understandable support for the death penalty comes from an emotional place where people are responding to (whether actually or hypothetically) brutal crimes committed against those they love. Such a place is not, to reiterate one of that post’s ultimate points, an appropriate one from which to begin making or assessing legal policies; but it’s also fair to admit that, whatever our ideals about justice or the law, no one doing such making or assessing of laws does so in a vacuum, without engaging in some form with human emotions and perspectives. So when it comes to those criminals whose violent and brutal crimes are clearly beyond dispute, for whom the question is one of sentencing rather than of guilt or innocence, I can again understand—even if I still disagree with—those for whom the death penalty feels appropriate.

The problem, though, is that in many if not most death penalty cases, the question of guilt or innocence is less than crystal clear. The case of Cameron Willingham in Texas has drawn a great deal of recent attention, since Texas governor and now presidential candidate Rick Perry responded to some evidentiary and scientific doubts that were raised about Willingham’s guilt (and even about whether an actual crime had been committed) by disbanding the commission investigating those questions and overtly ramming through Willingham’s execution despite those growing doubts. But just as troubling, and entirely ongoing, is the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia man whose appeal for clemency was just rejected by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles; as the post at the first link highlights, the case about Davis was based entirely on eyewitness testimony, and seven of the nine such testifiers have since recanted their testimony as (they argue) coerced and bullied by the police. Even if Davis did in fact kill the policeman for whose murder he was convicted, it seems impossible for any reasonable person to argue, under these circumstances, that the current case against him is certain enough to merit the final and irreversible punishment that is the death penalty.
And that’s really the ultimate issue here, for me, above and beyond any of the other objections that I could and on many occasions have raised against the death penalty. Precisely because the legal and justice systems are created and populated by humans, they have their share of errors—we all know the stories of innocent men and women released from prison after decades, of folks like “Hurricane” Carter and the Scottsboro boys and many others besides. As horrible as those stories are, though, they don’t end with prison, at least not necessarily (some of the Scottsboro boys did in fact die in prison), and so they include the possibility of wrongs being righted, of hope being restored, of genuine justice being, belatedly but not impossibly, done. When injustices are done in death penalty cases, though—and again, how can they not sometimes be, with human beings still doing all the work?—the very nature of the punishment makes such restitution, such righting of wrongs, impossible, and so to my mind guarantees that innocent people will sometimes be put to death. Davis again might or might not be one such (although very well-informed and hard-line voices, including former FBI director William Sessions, have argued for his innocence), but the responses and procedures in his case certainly make it that much more likely, even inevitable, that more innocent men and women will be executed.
At the end of the day, I’m dead certain about only one thing in all this: the death penalty is far closer to some of the worst aspects of American history and identity than to our highest ideals and possibilities. The Troy Davis case has only further convinced me that we can and must do better than this. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A brief blog post that collects (in links) many good starting points for the Davis case and the issues surrounding it: http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/09/troy-davis-to-be-executed

3)      A hugely powerful piece that brings together the death penalty and family/kids in a very different way: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/explaining-the-death-penalty-to-my-children/245020/

4)      OPEN: What do you think?



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

September 20, 2011: Creative Histories

In the brief prefatory note to Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1826), about which I blogged here, Sedgwick positions herself, and more exactly her work in the novel to follow, as roughly equivalent to the efforts of Native American “historians or poets.” The moment speaks directly to her revisionist goals for this work of historical fiction (about which I focused in that earlier blog), but at the same time it more implicitly but just as importantly reflects an era in American writing when the genres of historical and creative writing were not at all separate, and often in fact coexisted in the careers of prominent individual writers. After all, the nation’s first professional creative writer, Washington Irving, was also at least as well known as a biographer of George Washington, a historian of both the American Revolution and medieval Spain (among other interests), and the author of a work of historiographic satire and criticism, A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).

I don’t want to glorify that pre-specialized era, either as a time when writers chose not to limit their interests (it wasn’t a choice since such specialized genres simply hadn’t been developed) or as a time when better work was produced (I could blog daily about the number of amazing works of American history writing produced by more specialized academic historians and not run out of topics any time soon). But as someone with an obvious interest in interdisciplinary work, and a lifelong passion for historical literature to boot, I have to admit that many of what I’d call the richest American works—whether creative or scholarly or, y’know, some complicated combination of the two—defy any obvious categorization, or at least bring many elements of other genres and types of writing into their own most central forms. Even when the writer in question is not necessarily in the upper echelon of American talents, the very nature of these combinatory texts makes them, to me, significantly more compelling than might otherwise be the case, yields works that embody some of the best AmericanStudies questions and ideas.
A perfect case in point would be the early 19th century poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865). One of the era’s most popular poets, Sigourney’s works can seem from our 21st century vantage point far too traditional, in both form and theme, when compared with the era’s true innovators, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; less politically potent than James Russell Lowell at his best; less catchy and engaged with American myths than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; less spiritually potent than William Cullen Bryant; and so on. But whatever Sigourney might lack in those areas, I believe she makes up for in her strikingly historical poetic style and themes; works like “The Indian’s Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers” and “Indian Names” (both available at the first link) may be written in rhymed and metered stanzas, but they engage with founding and ongoing national histories and narratives very centrally and successfully. And in a book such as Scenes in My Native Land (1844; full text at the second link), Sigourney does away with generic boundaries even more fully, intermingling prose and poetry freely and smoothly in her powerful and compelling reflections on national sites and symbols as varied as Connecticut’s Charter Oak, Niagara Falls, and the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (in Hartford, Sigourney’s hometown).
As is the case with virtually every topic about which I write here, I don’t want to replace our current emphasis on distinct genres and modes of writing; instead I’m suggesting that there’s significant value in complementing such valuable distinctions with a sense of what authors and texts that blur or erase the generic boundaries also have to offer. In the case of writers like Sedgwick and Sigourney, their creative histories bring our national narratives and stories to life with compelling success, a contribution to AmericanStudies that renders absolute categorization very much a moot point. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Some of Sigourney’s best-known and best poems, including “Welcome” and “Names”: http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/sigour01.html

2)      The full text of Scenes: http://www.merrycoz.org/voices/scenes/SCENES.HTM

3)      OPEN: Any genre-busting authors or works you’d highlight?


Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19, 2011: Still Fresh

Many of my favorite American novels are explicitly historical novels, texts that are centrally interested in creating stories and images of the past; that interest, whatever else it might mean, tends to make the texts feel particularly distant or distinct from our own, 21st century moment. To me that’s one of their selling points—what Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition can reveal about the turn of the 20th century and the aftermaths of slavery and Reconstruction in it; what Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! constructs as the 1930s South and its fraught relationship to its own past; how Silko’s Ceremony engages with the spiritual rebirths of the Native American Renaissance while reflecting the continued impacts of histories as diverse as the Indian Wars and post-World War II trauma—but there’s no question that it can also make it tougher to sell them to a group of contemporary students, to argue for why these themes and questions still resonate just as fully in our own moment and world. Needless to say, I try very hard to do just that, but I likewise try to balance such explicitly historical (in every sense) texts with ones that, whenever they were published, feel in some crucial ways as if they could have been released just yesterday.

I just got done teaching one novel that fits that description perfectly: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), about which I blogged at length here. Carrie’s contemporaneity is at least somewhat ironic, since Dreiser goes to great lengths from his opening paragraphs to highlight the fact that he is setting his novel about a decade prior to its release, and to trace many of the elements that have already changed in those intervening years (aspects of the blossoming city of Chicago, particular social character types, broad Gilded Age emphases, and so on). Yet this most recent experience with the novel, and particularly seeing once again (as I had in each prior instance) how fully the students connected to Carrie, to Hurstwood, to the themes of ambition and wealth, class and status, dreams and disasters, to the seemingly clichéd (country girl comes to the city, older man overtaken and eventually destroyed by his infatuation with younger woman, realizing your dreams but paying a price to do so) but still resonant plot threads. Like another novel that has consistently worked for my students, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, what Dreiser’s book does best is just force us to think about how we define success, what the American Dream is and should be, whether it’s possible to be happy in our society and what that happiness entails and costs, and other questions that it’s vital for every American (and especially every young American) to consider, whatever his or her answers might be.
Tomorrow, in another of my classes, we start two weeks of conversations on another hugely resonant and timeless American classic, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). As with Dreiser’s book, Miller’s play can be read at least partly as marking the passing of an era, the changes of one world into another, and its title character as thus already historical in his moment, much less half a century later. Miller’s play is also more overtly and at times troublingly dated than Dreiser’s (despite its later publication) when it comes to gender—Willy Loman’s wife Linda is not a terrible character but is to my mind a lot flatter than the three men in her family, and the complex and interesting supporting characters are entirely male (with the most explicitly “bad” character known only as “The Woman”). But those historical or dated qualities ultimately cannot compete with the play’s absolutely perfect and still completely resonant themes, its engagement with not only many of the same questions to which I connected Dreiser’s novel, but also its extension of them to a vital question that Dreiser entirely elides: how fully our own answers to all those questions are influenced by our parents, by the lives and identities and experiences and dreams that they inhabit and give (consciously and unconsciously) to us. Willy is certainly the best character in Miller’s play, and one of the best in American drama and literature period—but he wouldn’t be nearly as great without his son Biff, and it’s the dynamic between them that is to me the play’s most powerful and most timeless element.
Should be a fun couple weeks! More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Great scene from Dustin Hoffman’s take on Willy (with, I believe, Chinese subtitles!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY-FyfpELfg

2)      Interesting and informative 2001 interview with Miller: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ABEd-xkAAY

3)      OPEN: Any books (American or otherwise) that you’d highlight as still fresh after (however many) years?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 17-18, 2011 [Guest Post of Sorts]: Life Support

Much has been made, to my mind rightly so, of one particular moment from the most recent Republican presidential debate, when it seems as if the audience was making light of, even cheering for, the death of a hypothetical fellow American due to his or her inability or unwillingness to pay for health insurance. As the difference between inability and unwillingness suggests, there are various points of disagreement about what exactly was asked (and to what contexts the question and moment could be connected) and thus what exactly the audience was cheering for. I’ll link to some video of the moment below, in the interest of fairness (and of course it would probably be ideal for you to watch it before reading any of these thoughts, including my own). But my main goal here is to highlight the exceptionally brave and powerful, tragic and terrible, and most of all righteously angry DailyKos diary that was written by the sister of a man (Steve Patience) who died in similar circumstances. Please consider it a guest post and check it out:

This Balloon Juice post in response to the diary also includes a MoveOn.org ad that features both some video from the debate and interview footage of the diarist herself (Susan Grigsby):
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate this debate moment from an even more unequivocally appalling moment in the prior Republican presidential debate, where the audience cheered for the extremely high number of executions that have taken place in Rick Perry’s Texas. And why should we separate the two? Both reflect a callous disregard for the sanctity of American and human lives, a disregard that not only reveals the hypocrisy of a party that defines itself as pro-life, but that also reflects a stunning lack of empathy and compassion. It’s one thing to support the death penalty (a complex topic to be sure, as I wrote in this post) or to believe that universal health insurance is impossible or etc; it’s quite another to celebrate the deaths that such beliefs and policies ultimately and inevitably produce.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      This post contains Andrew Sullivan’s thoughts on the moment as well as the 70-second video of (some of) it, but of course you can watch the video and draw your own conclusions before reading Sullivan (or me or anybody else): http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/09/indecent.html

2)      OPEN: What do you think?


Friday, September 16, 2011

September 16, 2011: Get Out the Vote

Many of the most passionate and committed activists in American history have dedicated their efforts to extending the franchise, to giving the vote, to those who did not already have it. Those three young Civil Rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who were lynched near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 were taking part in the “Freedom Summer,” a period focused explicitly on voter registration among officially enfranchised but practically disenfranchised African Americans. While their story exemplifies the most extreme sacrifice, it’s fair to say that they were taking part in a long tradition of suffragist activism, one extending back to those who worked to enfranchise non-landed white men in the early 19th century, to those who created and supported the 15th Amendment after the Civil War, to the generations of women (and men) who fought for female suffrage in the second half of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century, and to many other such advocates—and extending forward to the ongoing efforts of organizations like ACORN (about whom more below) to aid impoverished and other less fortunate Americans in exercising their own franchise.

Many of the most hateful and violent acts of domestic terrorism in American history have been undertaken in order to deny the franchise, to take away the vote, from those who were legally entitled to it. The 1898 Wilmington (North Carolina) coup d’etat and massacre, about which I wrote in my first post, took place on election day in that city in order to capitalize explicitly on local white fears and anger about African Americans and the ballot box; similarly, the Reconstruction-era rise of the Ku Klux Klan was predicated in no small measure on precisely that issue, as were many of Jim Crow’s first laws (including the infamous grandfather clause and other backdoor disenfranchising measures). While the female suffragettes did not meet with that level of violent response, many of their marches and efforts were counter-protested in aggressive and ugly ways; both of those words would also describe much of the rhetoric about the movement and its activists in the media and in national conversations. Those most interested in maintaining hierarchies of power and privilege in America, in short, have always recognized the threat posed to their status quo by the ability of their fellow citizens to gain and then exercise their franchise, and have taken every conceivable measure to oppose those steps.
Much was made in the immediate build-up to the 2008 presidential election, at least on Fox News and in the conservative media more generally, about ACORN and the potential for a fraudulent election; much has of course continued to be made about that organization in particular, and the idea of voter fraud more generally, in the years since. But the truth is that even if the narratives about ACORN’s fraud were accurate—and they have been instead, not surprisingly, largely fabricated and entirely exaggerated—the accusations are that the organization is trying to allow people to vote who might not be legally able to do so for one reason or another. On the other hand, conservative activists have for many years worked diligently to deny the franchise to millions of their fellow Americans: the most overt example would have to be the almost certainly illegal disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of African Americans in Florida prior to the 2000 presidential election (which hinged, of course, on the very tight Florida results), but the truth is that in many states similar efforts to restrict voting rights and opportunities (including for example requiring photographic identification, something that many poorer Americans who lack a driver’s license do not possess) have been undertaken in recent years by Republican legislators and activists.
I suppose it’s possible to make logical cases for at least some of those efforts. But given the broader and more defining American histories on either side of this issue, the crucial question has to be this: why on earth would an entire political movement seek to associate itself with efforts to restrict voting rights and opportunities? And, even more significantly, why have we focused so much in recent years on ACORN and its ilk and so little on these much more troubling activists on the other side of the issue? More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      An image of Norman Rockwell’s lesser-known but very powerful painting Murder in Mississippi (1965): http://detroit.about.com/od/museums/ss/Norman_Rockwell_4.htm

2)      Images both from and against the women’s suffrage movement: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/resources/team/lesson_4.html

3)      The Commission on Civil Rights’ report on Florida’s extensive disenfranchisement controversy and the 2000 election: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/transcripts/ccrdraft060401.htm

4)      OPEN: What do you think?

UPDATE) Great piece by political blogger Digby on this history of voter intimidation: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/09/201191883753799660.html