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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October 31, 2012: October 2012 Recap

[The spooooky posts resume tomorrow, but first, this recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
October 1: Up in the Air, Part One: First in a series inspired by articles in the US Airways magazine, this one on a Charlotte, North Carolina, Museum.
October 2: Up in the Air, Part Two: Next in the series, on the varied and inspiring efforts of country star Zac Brown.
October 3: Up in the Air, Part Three: The series continues with a post on Asheville, North Carolina’s forgotten son, Thomas Wolfe.
October 4: Up in the Air, Part Four: On the complex, challenging, and very American history of Puerto Rico’s Vieques island.
October 5: Up in the Air, Part Five: The series concludes with a post on the appeals and downsides of American nostalgia.
October 6-7: Brother Ali: A tribute post to a very unique and talented young American musician.
October 8: Columbus Day Alternatives, Part One: First in a series of nominations for a Cross-Cultural Day alternative to Columbus Day, this one on images of the arrival and exploration era.
October 9: Columbus Day Alternatives, Part Two: The series continues with a post on the cross-cultural and inspiring life of Ely Parker.
October 10: Columbus Day Alternatives, Part Three: Next in the series, on two distinct but equally cross-cultural late 19th century literary works.
October 11: Columbus Day Alternatives, Part Four: On the voice, writings, and identity of Zitkala-Sa.
October 12: Columbus Day Alternatives, Part Five: Last in the series, on some important and inspiring cross-cultural work being done right now.
October 13-14: Crowd-sourcing Columbus Day Alternatives: A crowd-sourced post, drawn from responses to the week’s series and topics.
October 15: Guest Post on Margaret Weis Brown: A series on children’s literature begins with Ilene Railton’s post on Brown and Goodnight Moon.
October 16: Ezra Jack Keats: The series continues with a tribute to a particularly progressive children’s book and author.
October 17: Mike Mulligan and His America: Next in the series, on the complex historical and cultural themes of Virginia Lee Burton’s classic.
October 18: Maurice Sendak: A tribute to the William Faulkner of children’s lit.
October 19: Frustrating George: The series concludes with a post on the most appalling and more inspiring sides to H.A. Rey’s mega-hit.
October 20-21: Crowd-sourcing Children’s Books: Another crowd-sourced post, following up the week’s series with lots of other voices and ideas.
October 22: Adverse Reactions, Part One: A series on inspiring responses to horrible situations begins with a post on the voices and texts of Angel Island.
October 23: Adverse Reactions, Part Two: On Trayvon Martin’s parents, Jim and Sue Brady, and turning tragedy to activism.
October 24: Adverse Reactions, Part Three: On the multiple layers of inspiration in Helen Keller’s life, work, and perspsective.
October 25: Adverse Reactions, Part Four: On two recent, very different, but equally impressive memoirs about loss and its aftermaths.
October 26: Adverse Reactions, Part Five: The series concludes with just a few of the reasons why Abraham Lincoln exemplifies my week’s theme.
October 27-28: Crowd-sourcing American Adversity: Other AmericanStudiers reflect on the week’s questions and topics.
October 29: AmericanSpooking, Part One: The Halloween-inspired series begins with a post on Poe, Danielewski, and horror.
October 30: AmericanSpooking, Part Two: Next in the series, on five exemplary American scary stories.
Back to the scares tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Topics, themes, texts, or thoughts you’d like to see in this space in the coming months? Guest posts you’d like to write? Let me know!
10/31 Memory Day nominee: Juliette Gordon Low, the Southern belle turned world traveler and children’s advocate whose 1912 founding of the Girl Scouts (known first as the American Girl Guides) has impacted millions of young Americans (and American sweet teeth).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October 30, 2012: AmericanSpooking, Part 2

[This week’s series is, well, obvious. Your thoughts on American scary stories—real or fictional, artistic or historical, fun or horrifying, and anything else you can think of—will help me assemble a weekend post that’s all treats and no tricks. Boo!]

My nominees for five of the scariest works of or moments in American literature (in chronological order):
1)      Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland, or the Transformation (1798): Brown’s novel suffers from some seriously over-wrought prose, and it can be hard to take its narrator seriously as a result; the pseudo-scientific resolution of its central mystery also leaves a good bit to be desired. But since that central mystery involves a husband and father who turns into a murderous psychopath bent on destroying his own idyllic home and family, well, none of those flaws can entirely take away the spookiness.

2)      Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839): Just about any Poe story would fit in this space. But given how fully this story’s scares depend precisely on the idea of what reading and art can do to the human imagination and psyche of their susceptible audiences, it seems like a good choice.

3)      Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948): I don’t think there’s anything scarier, in the world or in the imagination, than what people are capable of doing to each other. And Jackson’s story is probably the most concise and perfect exemplification of that idea in American literary history. I’ve read arguments that connect it to the Holocaust, which makes sense timing-wise; but I’d say the story is purposefully, and terrifyingly, more universal than that.

4)      Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt” (1950; don’t know why the font is so small in that online version, but you can always copy and paste and then enlarge—it’s worth it!): The less I give away about Bradbury’s story, the better. Suffice it to say it’s a pretty good argument for not having kids, or at least for only letting them play with very basic and non-technological toys. Ah well, that ship has sailed for me.

5)      Mark Danielewksi, House of Leaves (2000; that’s the companion website): As I wrote in yesterday’s post, Danielewksi’s novel is thoroughly post-modern and yet entirely terrifying at the same time. Don’t believe it’s possible? Read the book—but try to keep some lights on, or maybe just read outside, while you do.
October recap tomorrow, back to the spoooooky posts Thursday,
Ben
PS. American scary stories to highlight for the weekend post? Don’t be scared to share!
10/30 Memory Day nominee: Elizabeth Madox Roberts, the far-too-forgotten early 20th century novelist and poet who portrayed her beloved Kentucky with both sensitive realism and modernist innovation.

Monday, October 29, 2012

October 29, 2012: AmericanSpooking, Part 1

[This week’s series is, well, obvious. Your thoughts on American scary stories—real or fictional, artistic or historical, fun or horrifying, and anything else you can think of—will help me assemble a weekend post that’s all treats and no tricks. Boo!]
On the limitations and the possibilities of scary stories.
I don’t have any problem thinking of genre fiction and scholarly conversations about literature in the same ballpark, or even on the same base—I’m the guy who wrote one of my early entries here about Ross MacDonald’s hardboiled detective novels, and am also the guy who created an Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy class and has had an unabashedly good time teaching it twice now. When you get right down to it, it can be pretty difficult to parse out what qualifies as genre fiction and what doesn’t in any case—Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) owes a lot to detective fiction, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (1889) is in many ways a Jules Verne-esque time travel sci fi novel, and, as critic David Reynolds has convincingly argued, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850) has a great deal in common with contemporary potboiler works of religion, romance, and scandal. So while I’m not averse to making judgment calls about whether a particular text is worth extended attention (in a class, in scholarly work, etc), I try not to base those calls on whether it’s been put in a particular generic box or not.
And yet, I’ll admit that I have a bit of an analytical prejudice against works whose primary purpose—or one of them at least—is to scare their audiences. I suppose it has always seemed to me that a desire to frighten, while very much a valid and complex formal and stylistic goal—and one brought to the height of perfection I’d say by Edgar Allan Poe, whose every choice and detail in a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) contributes to its scariness, making it a perfect example of his theory of the unity of effect—, is nonetheless a desire that requires an audience to turn off their analytical skills, to give in entirely to primal responses that, while not insignificant, are to my mind a bit more passive than ideal. (I’d compare this for example to humor, which certainly does tap into primal responses as well but which nonetheless can still ask an audience to think as well as laugh.) This isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to weird tale kind of scares, ones that connect an audience to deeply unfamiliar worlds and force them to imagine what they might entail and affect; but the more mainstream horror, tales of vampires and zombies and ghosts and the like, does often ask an audience mainly to react in terror to the artist’s and text’s manipulations.
But like any reasonable person who recognizes his or her prejudices, I’d like to challenge and eventually undermine this perspective of mine, and a text that has very much helped me to begin doing so in this case is Mark Danielewski’s postmodern horror novel House of Leaves (2000). Postmodern is a must-use adjective in any description of Danielewski’s novel, which features, among other things, at least three distinct narrations and narrators (one of whom does much of his narrating in footnotes, and another who does the majority of his narrating in footnotes on those footnotes); pages with only a single word, located in a random location; elaborate use of colored type to signal and signify different (if vague and shifting) emphases; and a large number of invented scholarly works, fully and accurately cited both parenthetically and in the aforementioned footnotes (alongside some actual works). Yet—and I know that scariness is a very subjective thing, which is perhaps another reason why I have a hard time analyzing it, but nonetheless—the novel is also deeply, powerfully, successfully scary. And moving, for that matter—certainly to my mind the best horror (and Poe would qualify here for sure) reveals and sympathizes with humanity even as it threatens and destroys many of its human characters, and Danielewski’s novel does each of those things, to each character at each level of story and narration, very fully and impressively. Yet I believe that the book’s principal purpose, first and last, is to scare its readers, and for me, at least, it has done so, not only the first time I read it but the second and third as well (another mark of the best horror I’d say).
So what?, you might ask. Well, for starters, you should check out House of Leaves, perhaps beginning with this fun and, yes, scary companion website. But for me, I suppose the ultimate lesson here is that the more I’m open to the potential power and impressiveness of any work of literature (and art in any medium), both emotionally and analytically, the more I can find the greatest works, of our moment and every other one. Nothing scary about that! Next spoooooky post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. American scary stories to highlight for the weekend post? Don’t be scared to share!
10/29 Memory Day nominee: Henry George, the writer, economist, and political activist whose Progress and Poverty, despite some outdated theories, remains one of the most prescient and salient works on inequality published in America.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

October 27-28, 2012: Crowd-Sourcing American Adversity

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I have highlighted a handful of such moments; this crowd-sourced post is drawn from responses to them and other ideas from fellow AmericanStudiers.]
Jeff Renye highlights the very complex case of Lance Armstrong, which represents at one and the same time (to my mind) a genuine triumph over adversity and a fraudulent version of same. Fellow AmericanStudier Matt Goguen is considering writing an analytical piece for the site on Armstrong, so stay tuned for that. But I’ll ask you all as well—what do you think about Armstrong and these questions?
Since that was it for the crowd-sourced responses this week, I wanted to frame one more question to which I’d love to hear your responses, readers and fellow AmericanStudiers: which books, figures, stories, histories, do you turn to when you’re experiencing your own adversity? Who or what inspires you? Why?
Next series next week,
Ben
PS. So what do you think?
10/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique, significant, and hugely talented 20th century American authors, Sylvia Plath and Maxine Hong Kingston.
10/28 Memory Day nominee: Jonas Salk!

Friday, October 26, 2012

October 26, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Five

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On the American leader who just plain exemplifies inspiring responses to adversity.

There are a lot of reasons why Abraham Lincoln consistently tops polls asking about the “best” or “greatest” American presidents, and I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg will remind us of many in a couple months. But I would argue that virtually all of those reasons have one central element: they demonstrate the various and always impressive ways in which Lincoln responded to the most challenging and adverse moment in American history. Here are just a few examples:
1)      His words: Again and again, Lincoln found nearly perfect words with which to respond to our darkest moments. The Gettysburg Address is exhibit A, but I would also highlight both the First and Second Inaugurals as among the top five such speeches as well.

2)      His actions: I know that there are pragmatic, and even cynical, ways to view the Emancipation Proclamation; I’m sure that the upcoming film, like the book on which it’s based, will explore those multiple sides to some degree. But the truth is that neither abolitionism nor emancipation were widely popular in the North, and that if nothing else (and there is much else), Lincoln’s choice to issue represented significant social and political risk.

3)      His breadth: The harshest and most accurate critiques that can be leveled at Lincoln would have to do with the things he was willing to sacrifice in pursuing the war effort, with habeas corpus chief among them. Yet at the same time that he was pursuing that effort with explicit and understandable focus, he was also always thinking about the nation’s future and identity beyond. To highlight one example, Lincoln began pursuing the purchase of Alaska during the war, recognizing that America must continue to grow even as its unity remained in doubt.
For those reasons, and many more, Lincoln will always be one of our most inspiring national figures, and a true exemplar of how we can and must try to turn our darkest moments—even those we bring upon ourselves—into brighter futures.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance to add to that post: Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight? Thoughts on any  of the week’s topics?
10/26 Memory Day nominee: Mahalia Jackson, for the groundbreaking and powerful recordings that helped make her “The Queen of Gospel,” but also for her courageous civil rights activism and advocacy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 25, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Four

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On two memoirs that deal very differently, but equally impressively, with tragic losses.
Memoir, or as it’s often called within scholarly conversations “life writing (although the concept includes biographical as well as autobiographical works),” is a pretty complex and fraught literary genre. Even leaving aside the questions of veracity and authenticity that have been raised by numerous recent memoirs (most particularly James Frye’s A Million Little Pieces [2003] and the Oprah-related scandal it produced), the basic facts of any memoir are plenty complex enough: a person looking back at his or her life and trying to write about some of its events and themes for outside audiences, with various private and public motives, with all of the choices that go into any written work, with all that is potentially left out, and so on. Yet as long as we recognize all those factors, and thus treat memoirs as fundamentally creative works, the genre can also provide powerful and inspiring stories, narratives of individuals dealing with and working through (in many cases) difficult and adverse situations.
Moreover, memoirs can highlight in their style and tone, as much as in their content and themes, the hugely varied and equally effective ways in which we can respond to such situations. To that end, I would point to two recent, justly celebrated memoirs, one by an already prominent writer and one that established its author on the literary scene, but both dealing centrally with tragic losses and the authors’ responses to them. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) details the author’s many stages and extremes in the year after the unexpected death of her husband of forty years, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, a period during which their daughter was also gravely ill. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) traces the author’s many years of stewardship over his younger brother, an effort that Eggers undertook after their parents’ unexpected deaths within 32 days of one another (Eggers was 21 and his brother  8 at the time). Both number among the most compelling American memoirs I’ve read, and certainly among the most vital contributions to the genre in the early 21st century.
Yet despite those many parallels, the two books could not be more different in their predominant styles and tones. Those differences are due in no small measure to their authors’ distinct voices: Didion has throughout her career written complex psychological, fragmented, and often stream of consciousness novels and non-fiction, and adopts similar perspectives and themes for her memoir; whereas Eggers has become known as a founder of McSweeney’s, the editor of the Best American Non-Required Reading series, and other counter-cultural and satirical works, and brings that persona to both of his roles (as author and as main character) in his memoir. But I would also argue that the books’ differences reflect two distinct, if perhaps complementary, ways to write and work through loss and adversity: in Didion’s case, to allow each and every part of the experience its time and space, to engage with every emotion and response without judgment or fear (or at least not self-consciousness), and to chart that process in writing; and in Eggers’ case, to emphasize self-consciously the hyperbole itself, the extremes of adversity and of heroism in combating them, to find the humor but also certainly the pathos within those extremes, and to tell that story with charisma for his audience. Each, again, works very well on its own terms; together they offer a multi-part map to dealing with, and writing about, the worst of what people can experience.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?
10/25 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two pioneering 20th century Americans who took America and the world to entirely new places and ideas, Richard Byrd and Henry Steele Commager.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 24, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Three

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On one of the best American examples of turning adversity into triumph—and a whole lot more.
Thanks in no small measure to The Miracle Worker, both the 1957 William Gibson play and the 1962 Academy Award-winning film, I’d argue that most Americans have a good sense of the amazing life and story of Helen Keller. Left deaf and blind by an illness that hit her when she was just 19 months old, during a period (the early 1880s) when such childhood disabilities were even more affecting and challenging (to say the least) than they remain in our own era, Keller could very easily have become simply a tragic story of lost potential and family struggles, one of many in a century when childhood mortality rates were strikingly high. But thanks to dedicated parents, one truly pioneering and impressive teacher, and her own perseverance, Keller instead became, in the course of her nearly nine full decades of life, one of the nation’s foremost authors, lecturers, and activists.
The specifics of how Keller learned to overcome her disabilities and becoming a highly functioning member of society (indeed, one who functioned at a higher level than almost all of her peers, of all physical abilities), which of course are the famous heart of The Miracle Worker, would be inspiring in any era; again, in her own late 19th century childhood they were that much more impressive still. It’s important to reiterate that she did not accomplish those triumphs on her own; or, rather, that two equally impressive women, her mother Kate Adams Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, significantly contributed their own inspiring perspectives and perseverance to her life and triumphs. Taken together, the lives and efforts of these three women exemplify not only the most ideal response to a tragic (or at least very adverse) situation, but also the degree to which community and collaboration consistently offer the best possibilities for hope and progress in the face of such adversities.
Yet I would also highlight one more individual and unique, and to my mind equally inspiring, aspect of Helen Keller’s life and identity: her socialism. While that political and social philosophy was not, in the late 19th and early 20th century moments when Keller first connected to it, nearly as controversial here in the United States as it became in the mid-20th century and remains in our own contemporary moment, neither of course was it in the American mainstream. (At least not overtly—as I have blogged elsewhere, the Pledge of Allegiance was authored in 1892 by an avowed socialist, to cite one subtle such presence.) But to my mind, what makes Keller’s socialism so impressive has nothing to do with political debates, and everything to do with what it reflects in her own trajectory: the fact that, having dealt with and overcome some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, Keller gravitated toward a philosophy that was grounded in significant measure in sympathy for, and a focus on alleviating the condition of, all those in desperate situations. It would be easy to imagine Keller embracing the “self-made” mantra that was at the core of many Gilded Age American narratives, but she went instead in the exact opposite direction: recognizing in response to her own challenges and triumphs that any and all such successes depend on community and support.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October 23, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Two

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On the moments in which great tragedy turns to powerful activism.
Earlier this year, I blogged about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and more exactly about the American narratives and realities of race to which that shooting connected. Preparations for the 2013 trial of Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, are underway in Florida, and so many of those narratives and realities have returned to the conversations and debates surrounding Zimmerman’s actions, Martin’s death, the media coverage in the aftermath, and more. Yet amid all those narratives and debates, and even amid the (what I hope are) more measured analyses such as those I offered in my initial post, it can be easy to lose sight of the case’s two simplest and most profound truths: the inarguable tragedy of Martin’s death, and of the death of any 17 year old; and what such a tragic loss means to those who knew and loved Martin, his parents most especially.
Moreover, if we can focus on that tragedy and on Martin’s parents, we will do more than do justice to those horrors: we will be able to see how they are working to turn tragedy into activism, to respond to their loss not only with the inevitable grief and anger but with impassioned efforts to make the nation and world a better place. His parents have focused those efforts on the so-called Stand Your Ground Laws (also known as the Castle Doctrine), the laws that have been passed in more than twenty states over the last few years and that allow armed Americans to shoot and kill their fellow citizens in increasingly broadly defined situations of “self-defense” and thus avoid criminal charges or prosecution. Whether or not Zimmerman’s actions fell under Florida’s such law is an open question, and one on which his trial will certainly hinge; but Trayvon’s parents have not in any case limited their efforts to that question and case, choosing instead to challenge the legality and rationality of the laws throughout the nation. Whatever your position on the laws, I believe those efforts, to seek what his parents call “change for Trayvon,” embody the best kind of response to such an unthinkable loss and tragedy.
In responding in that impressive way, Martin’s parents join a list of Americans who have done the same, turning tragedy into inspiring activism. Near the top of that list, for me, would be Jim and Sue Brady; Jim was the Reagan Press Secretary who was seriously wounded in and permanently disabled by the 1981 John Hinckley assassination attempt on the president, and in the years after that shooting, both Jim and Sue became vocal and committed activists for gun control and reform. Those efforts, which became known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and led to the passage of the 1993 Brady Bill, are of course as controversial and open to debate as any gun control measures, or any social and political activism at all for that matter. But I would hope, again, that all Americans and people, regardless of our positions on particular issues, can be inspired by Jim and Sue Brady, and by the way in which they responded to a great and defining tragedy with lifelong activism, not so much for themselves (no gun control legislation will change what happened to Jim nor ameliorate his present situation in any way) but for all their fellow Americans.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?
10/23 Memory Day nominee: Johnny Carson, who redefined a television genre but whose influence on 20th century American culture and society went far beyond just late nights.

Monday, October 22, 2012

October 22, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part One

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]
On the powerful writings through which a prison became something more.
One of the main premises underlying both my motivations in creating this blog and many of the topics with which I’ve dealt here—and, for that matter, much of my scholarly work and teaching more broadly—is that in focusing as we tend to on the overtly and easily inspirational and ideal aspects of our national histories and identities, we Americans elide not only the more difficult and dark sides but also some more genuinely and profoundly inspirational and ideal stories and voices. And I’m not sure any duality can better exemplify that premise than that between Ellis and Angel Islands. Ellis is a great example of an overtly and pretty easily inspirational and ideal site, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way; while certainly there were more troubling aspects of Ellis (such as the medical tests and quarantines) that we have downplayed, there’s no doubt that the place does represent the point of arrival for many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of new Americans, and that it is thus without question the physical counterpart to and manifestation of Emma Lazarus’ poem, the first space in which those huddled masses could perhaps begin to breathe free and could certainly embark on the next stages of their American journeys. My own maternal great-grandparents most likely came to America through Ellis around the turn of the 20th century, so I get the place it holds in our individual and collective narratives for sure.
Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, served as the “Ellis Island of the West” (as it was sometimes known) for a much briefer time, from 1910 to 1940, although it is estimated that at least two hundred thousand and perhaps as many as a million immigrants (most but not all from China and Japan) were processed through it during those decades. Yet the realities of the immigration laws under which Angel existed—first the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the even more restrictive and xenophobic Asian Exclusion Act of 1924—made Angel Island into a much more complicated space than Ellis, one that at best entailed extensive interrogations and challenges to its arrivals and at worst (and much of the time) became a prison, one in which Asian immigrants could expect to live for years before they were offered the opportunity to travel to the mainland (if they were not simply turned away). And just as prisoners often carve their voices (or at least their chronologies) into their cell walls, so too did many of Angel Island’s inhabitants create an amazing body of impromptu communal poetry on its walls—those folk literary texts, which were collected and published as early as the 1930s and are given new voice for the 21st century at this site, are an amazing record of heartbreak and hope, of the squalid and painful conditions that greeted arrivals at Angel and yet the continuing faith with which they endured their years there and because of which they continued to fight for the chance to join the nation that lay outside its walls.
Yet the story of Angel Island, like the story of Asian immigration in this time period (and really up until the 1965 immigration act) more generally, entailed more of the heartbreak than the hope for far too high of a percentage of those who experienced it. And it is those darker sides that are at the heart of one of America’s greatest short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1912; most of it, although unfortunately not the conclusion, is available at page 93). Only the final, briefest and most devastating section of Far’s story is set on Angel Island itself (or a parallel holding station), since the story’s two adult characters (a Chinese American husband and wife) have been lucky enough to gain entry to the nation and begin to create a new life here, in San Francisco’s Chinatown; but since it is their infant son who has been detained upon his first arrival to America at the story’s opening (the wife returned to China to care for her dying mother-in-law and gave birth while there), it is quite literally the case that their family and future are likewise detained, held in a state of uncertainty and limbo as the story’s events play out. No paraphrase or summary can do justice to Far’s concluding section, nor to her story’s overall engagement with the ideals and the realities of American life through the lens of this fictional family and very real place and issue; but since that conclusion is apparently not available online, I will say that it is both understated and yet one of the most profoundly tragic moments in American literature, a moment that for any parent—and any empathetic person for that matter—brings home the human cost of the period’s exclusionary laws and of the worst possible meanings of Angel Island.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftermath created some of the most adverse and painful situations faced by immigrants and Americans; and yet, as both the Angel Island poetry and Far’s story illustrate in their own ways, in the midst of those most brutal experiences we can find some of the most inspiring and ideal American words, identities, and voices. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?
10/22 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two nearly mythic American icons whose actual experiences and identities, while complex and controversial, also comprise some of the bravest choices in our history, Daniel Boone and John Reed.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

October 20-21, 2012: Crowd-sourcing Children’s Books

[This week, I have the wonderful opportunity to be a Celebrity Reader—emphasis on the celebrity, right? Right?!—for both of my sons’ elementary school classes. So in honor of that occasion, I’ve featured blog posts on children’s books and authors and American Studies. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and perspectives of other American Studiers. Share yours below, please!]
In response to Monday’s Margaret Weis Brown post, Michelle Moravec notes that she “was just tweeting with someone about her other well known work The Runaway Bunny, aka the stalker mommy bunny book. I do wonder if the ’42 publication date relates to the persistent message that mama will not ever abandon baby bunny?”
Brenda Elsey adds on that same post that “these books have incredible staying power. I think Runaway Bunny is both a mother and child fantasy of complete connection. Creepy, perhaps, but psychically satisfying to both. I nominate The Story of Ferdinand – every pacifist parent’s dream!”
In response to Tuesday’s Ezra Jack Keats tribute, Tona Hangen writes, “Hear, hear for Ezra Jack Keats! The Snowy Day is a mid-century collage graphic marvel. The page where Peter discovers the snowball has melted makes me cry every time. I think it was one of the few from my own childhood that had matter-of-fact African American main characters in it. That, and Gyo Fujikawa’s lovingly multicultural books about babies.”
And in response to Wednesday’s Mike Mulligan post, Tona writes, “Another of Burton's marvelous books that's a favorite of mine is The Little House, in which a sweet pink Cape Cod starts out as a rural house but eventually gets a big soul-draining city built around it. Like Mike Mulligan, her colored-pencil illustrations convey the bustle and dehumanization of the industrial urban landscape with perfection. It's a meditation on the city vs the country as a deep tension in American life.”
In response to Thursday’s Maurice Sendak tribute, Matt Goguen writes, “I remember listening to an NPR interview with Sendak before he passed away. They were talking about his last book Bumble-Ardy and how he was able to write it during a particularly dark period of his life. The most poignant part of the interview came when Sendak said there were two lines in Bumble-Ardy that meant more to him than any other he had ever written. Bumble-Ardy is a pig that lives with his aunt and has never had a birthday party. Close to his ninth birthday, he invites many of the rowdy pigs in town to his aunt's home while she is at work and their party gets very out of hand. When Bumble-Ardy's aunt returns from work later and sees the big mess, she said ‘Okay, Smarty. You've had your party but never again.’ Bumble-Ardy replied ‘I promise, I swear, I'll never turn ten.’”
On the same post, Irene Maryniuk writes, “On a much sillier note, the title Higgilety Piggledty Pop! Or, There Must be More to Life is a phrase that I and my siblings have continually used to describe bad days for over a decade. The phrase and the story just moved into our vocabulary. Now, it's code on the phone or in texts for when things aren't going well, but said with sweetness, not anger.”
Nikolai Soudek recommends Spike Jonze’s documentary on Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want (2011; available in full at that website).
In response to Friday’s Curious George post, Rob Gosselin writes, “When my boys were little I rented the original Flipper (1963) movie. My boys were like 6 and 4. In the first ten minutes the main character finds Flipper (a dolphin) washed up on the rocks with arrows shot in him. The father in the movie breaks out a shotgun to "take it out of its misery." Aims it and everything. Both of my sons freaked. That's when I learned to always preview, or preread, just about anything.
Amara highlights another childhood favorite, Doris Susan Smith’s The Travels of J.B. Rabbit (1982). Rob Gosselin adds, “Shel Silverstein. For so many reasons.” And Irene adds, “I was a big fan of Rosemary Wells’ characters--especially Max and Ruby. I realize they are now industry characters--stuffed animals and books galore, but back then, there was Morris' Disappearing Bag and six board books--or at least that's all the Kent Free Library owned. I realize now that I have a healthy dose of both Max and Ruby in me. Max is so off-kilter, gloriously free and inventive. He makes us laugh with his unique logic and sense of love. And Ruby is anxiety driven, worrying about Max and what everyone else will think. I now own a number of Max and Ruby books and can truly say my personality type could be classified as ‘MaxRuby.’”
Monica Jackson adds, “The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is one of the greatest children's books, ever. By the way, this is my favorite topic (children's lit) along with young adult fiction. I could go on and on, but my favorites are: Number the Stars (ages 9-11, a great introduction to teaching children about the Holocaust), The Legend of the Bluebonnet (ages 6-9, Native American culture), Alice in Wonderland, Alice through the Looking Glass, Miss Nelson is Missing (ages 6-9, good for teaching positive behavior in school, lol), etc.
10/20 Memory Day nominee: John Dewey!
10/21 Memory Day nominee: Ursula Le Guin, the pioneering science fiction and fantasy author who has also written eloquently about many of our most complex and important cultural questions.